Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14
Surveys have been done. It is a universal perception in churches that they are welcoming and hospitable places. However, that welcome and that hospitality are not always easily shared with outsiders.
I used to joke that the first church I served would grow when cloning became legal. Cloning is not yet legal, and, as of last December, that church has closed. Now, we didn’t often get visitors – but when we did, I would almost always get a call on Monday morning. “Who were those people – or who was that person – in church, yesterday?” I often had to point out that I didn’t get much of an opportunity to talk with visitors because members, regulars, demanded my time. “Why didn’t you talk to them?” I would ask. There usually wasn’t an answer.
Now, that church, when I came, spoke glowingly of the days when the pews had been filled – brought in by my predecessor’s predecessor. “Those were the days,” they told me. Money wasn’t an issue. They were able to do things. I also heard about the difficult days when some people tried to change the way things had always been done. Someone told me that one of the women had a habit of calling the presbytery to complain about non-Presbyterian actions. It was some time before I began to realize that the good old days were also the bad old days. The newcomers who came in with that particular pastor were also the ones who stirred things up. When the pastor left, so did all those new people. And, generally, the congregation breathed a great sigh of relief. Consequently, strangers were to be feared. For strangers brought with them the promise of change. The only way to enter that church, legitimately, was through birth. Marriage provided a possible entry – with time! They wanted the people as workers and givers who would fit into their ways of doing things.
What is hospitality? What is Christian hospitality? The letter to the Hebrews has this wonderful declaration. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” “Some have entertained angels.” What does it mean to entertain an angel? We have to remember that angels aren’t the cute little figures that modern culture has made them. Angels are the message bearers God sends us. Angels come to proclaim God’s judgment, transformation, intent, and God’s call to human beings to get on board with all of that. Hospitality to angels requires an openness to hearing the message that they bring. It asks the “host” to be willing to be changed by the stranger.
Thomas Ogletree wrote: “To offer hospitality to a stranger is to welcome something new, unfamiliar, and unknown in our life-world…Strangers have stories to tell which we have never heard before, stories which can redirect our seeing and stimulate our imaginations. The stories invite us to view the world from a novel perspective.” Madeleine L’Engle reflected on communities: communities of family, village, church, city, country and globe. She said, “These communities tend to become rigid. They stop evolving, revolving, which is essential to their life, as is the revolution of the earth about the sun essential to the life of our planet, our fully family and basic establishment.” Perhaps our hospitality to strangers is a way of welcoming God’s presence, to stir up that which has become placid or rigid. The person who comes with different stories, different traditions, different expectations and values invites us to expand our concept of what God’s good creation is.
I am grateful for a childhood that included hospitality to strangers. When I was young, my parents housed college students. Later, we had teaching assistants from France and Spain. Then we had a series of exchange students. After that, my parents opened their home to young people caught up in the court system. The college students brought different traditions. I remember one young woman who brought us bear meat from her father’s hunting trip. For us, that was different! Pierre, from France, brought wine into the house – and exposure to French cooking. The little boy, with my parents through the Probation department, expanded my growing realization that this world is not equally fair. He was in trouble because his mother used him to shoplift. His story introduced me to a world I could barely comprehend.
Hospitality, in our world, is often offered as a sense of transaction. “I will extend hospitality to you because you have something to offer me.” Jesus’ parable about the wedding banquet is as contemporary as you can get! How many couples see the wedding banquet as something offered to get something in return? I’ve read the complaints that the gifts were not adequate. I just read about a couple that sent a bill to someone who didn’t show up at the banquet after saying that he would.
“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”`
A story made the news about a year ago. A bride-to-be in Sacramento, California, called her mother to say that the groom had backed out. It was too late to cancel, so the bride’s mother decided to give the reception to the homeless. She, the mother, was the hostess. People came: single people, families, grandparents and newborns. When the first guest, a homeless elderly woman, arrived, the bride’s mother knew it would be worth it if she was the only guest. But, they served 120 people the gourmet meal at the fancy restaurant. That story has since been replicated in Seattle. The bride spent the day hiking with her dad while her mom and maid of honor hosted a “reception” for people from a homeless shelter, including many children. “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed.” These families may not have, initially, intended to invite these groups, but they did, in the midst of their own pain. And, their stories indicate that they were blessed by the experience.
Hospitality is much more than offering a bite to eat. It speaks of making space for those we do not know – for those who might be very different. It is what we, as Christians, are called to do. That is something to remember as the immigration debates rage and, too often, fear seems to dictate the response. Ana Maria Pineda wrote the chapter on Hospitality in Practicing Our Faith. She wrote of the hard work of being hospitable. It is, at times, “undertaken under risky conditions, and without structures and commitments for welcoming strangers…fear crowds out what needs to be done…In the face of overwhelming human need for shelter and care, and in the face of our own fear of strangers, we need to develop ways of supporting one another in the practice of hospitality.”
That book was written in 1997. Yet the issue is a very current one. She wrote of a Roman Catholic response to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The Archdiocese of Chicago “challenged all believers to resist unjust treatment of the men and women who seek refuge in this land and invited communities to give the finest of their resources for the compassionate care of the immigrant…[They] challenged Christians to join together in attending to the needs of the stranger in ways that would go beyond anything a single person could do.” I am reminded that the voices that stridently proclaim our need to be a closed society cannot, at the same time, be claiming to do so in the name of Christianity. Christianity calls us, instead, to a radical, and admittedly at time, risky hospitality. We have seen that hospitality offered in churches, communities and people who have welcomed immigrants, providing friendship and support. There was a small church in Utica, New York. It was a struggling church. But they found an opportunity to welcome an immigrant group in the city, Haitians. They helped provide winter clothes. The immigrants and the old Welsh congregation began to worship together – and discovered a shared passion for music, for singing hymns. The old church found new life, (until the Haitians decided that northern New York winters were not for them!)
One of the things I love about that story is that the church didn’t wait for this immigrant community to show up at their door. They had looked at their community. They had asked themselves who was in need. They offered hospitality – first, in the simple meeting of needs. They didn’t ask anything in return. They didn’t demand that this group of immigrants come to their church. They offered goods and friendship. They cared, because that was God’s call to them. They didn’t expect anything in return.
It’s tempting for churches to do little more than passive hospitality – to work at being welcoming to those who find their way to our doors. That’s good. We need to be sure that we are welcoming – that we make space, that we are willing to be challenged and changed by the perceptions and experiences they bring. The church always needs to be involved, as well, in active hospitality – hospitality that looks beyond ourselves. Who are our neighbors? What are their needs? What can we offer to address those needs? For the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that among the strangers we meet, we will encounter God’s messengers.
When I was 7, my parents went away for a week and left me and my two younger sisters, aged 5 and 3, in the care of an older couple. (We lived far, far away from all relatives, and the couple was, apparently, highly recommended!) Things went fairly well – until Sunday. I think they took us to their church on Sunday. I don’t remember anything about church. But I do remember the rest of the day!
After lunch (or Sunday dinner), I got out some scraps of material and scissors. I had some grandiose idea that I was going to make a costume of some sort. Well, the scissors were snatched from my hand and put away somewhere. I was scolded for “working” on the Sabbath. That was round one in a very, very long day. It seemed that no matter what we wanted to do, we were in trouble. We got out cards– probably Old Maid – a children’s game. They were taken away. When the youngest, Beth, started to cry, I decided I would blow up some balloons for her. Another no-no. We couldn’t play dress up. We couldn’t go outside. They wanted us to sit quietly with them where they could watch us.
We were, as you might guess, miserable. We were homesick in our own home. We didn’t understand what was going on – why Sunday had suddenly become such a horrible day. We were scolded for our disrespect of the Sabbath.
My parents had quite a homecoming. I don’t know if the couple said anything to them, but we had a lot to say! They came home to three little girls who were hurt and bewildered. My parents then started asking questions of those who had recommended the couple. “Well, yes, they are pretty conservative,” someone said. “But I didn’t think that would bother you.”
A few years later, mom and dad were going to go away again. They told us that they had looked for someone else to watch us, but couldn’t find anybody. So, they hired the couple. This time, however, mom and dad set some ground rules – and told us, in advance, that they had done so. Friends would take us to our church. And the couple was informed that they could not force us to follow their Sabbath rules. It probably helped that, by that time, we lived in a much larger house. It was easier for us to find our own space where they weren’t watching us. They could have their “Sabbath” time in the living room. We could be upstairs in our bedrooms. As long as we weren’t fighting with each other or making lots and lots of noise we were to be allowed to do whatever we wished.
“There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath.” That one line conjures up all the negative connotations connected with the idea of Sabbath. “No work allowed.” My Jewish brother-in-law told me about some of the practices that ensure that work isn’t done. For example, he said that in preparation for the Sabbath, they would unscrew the light bulb in the refrigerator so that it wouldn’t come on when the door was opened. “What happens if the refrigerator starts to run when you open the door,” I asked. “Oh,” he said, “You never open the door until the refrigerator is already running. That way you haven’t made it come on!”
Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Is this what God meant? Children aren’t allowed to play? You can’t grab a cold drink from the refrigerator without worrying about whether or not it will start to run? A woman who’s suffering can’t be healed of her affliction? Imagine the chaos if this “commandment” ruled our society. Firefighters wouldn’t be able to respond to fires? EMTs wouldn’t be available? Hospitals would essentially shut down?
The Christian Church often has a negative reputation. We’re the “you shall not” people! What we proclaim to the world is a life that has to be lived within strict boundaries. Life is tentative because we’re always struggling to “color within the lines,” that is, to live safely, avoiding God’s wrath that would be unleashed upon us if we broke God’s rules. That childhood experience of Sabbath keeping, of a tyrannical, life-sapping approach to faith, is what many think the church is all about.
We are familiar with the concept of the Sabbath as a day of rest. We immediately think of the 10 Commandments. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. That’s the commandment. In Exodus, the first telling of the 10 commandments, the commentary gives it a context. “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” The story of creation provides the reason for observing sabbath. God rested. Therefore, all God’s people – and, in fact, all God’s animals, are called to rest on the sabbath. “You shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.”
It sounds like a justification for the rabbi’s complaint against Jesus – and for all those who rigidly observe the sabbath, forbidding any kind of “work” (including, even, the play of children.)
The Old Testament has another setting of the 10 commandments that places the observance of sabbath in a different context. In Deuteronomy, chapter 5, it says, “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
Yes, there is a commandment to rest – but that commandment is placed within the context of God’s liberating, redeeming work. On the sabbath, they remember that God called them out of slavery. The day of rest is a day of liberation – a day to acknowledge and celebrate God’s liberating, redeeming love. Abraham Joshua Heschel, a 20th century Jewish author wrote, “The meaning of Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to the holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”
I might tweak his reflection by suggesting that the invitation is to find what the gospel writers called “kairos,” that is, time infused with the grace-filled, redeeming presence of God, rather than “chronos,” chronological time which has its own tyranny in our lives.
The Deuteronomical interpretation of Sabbath can inform our understanding of what it means to “rest from one’s labors.” It is not rest for rest’s sake alone. It is rest in order to live into the holiness of God’s life-giving presence. It should be a liberating practice, not a limiting one.
Jesus’ healing of the woman at the synagogue is a sign of the intent of Sabbath. He liberates her from the tyranny of her illness – an illness that had enslaved her for 18 long years. Jesus shows us sabbath as life-giving, not life-restricting practice. It is intended to enhance life, not limit it. On the sabbath, God’s people are invited to remember who they truly are – beloved children of God. “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from her bondage on the Sabbath?” Jesus asked. Sabbath is a holy gift. Jesus said elsewhere, “The sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the sabbath.”
There has been a renewed interest in the gift of sabbath over the past few years. I was helped by a book by Rabbi Kula who lifted up his family’s sabbath practices. Sabbath time is renewal time. It is a time for the family to connect with each other, with treasured friends, and with the creation itself. He wrote of the appropriateness of spending time in nature, going for walks, or sitting in a park. Sabbath time is a time to let go of our need to be in control and celebrate the God who created us and the world in love. It is not a restrictive practice, but a life-giving practice.
Everyone needs sabbath time – time for rest and renewal, time to just be a child of God, to be freed from the tyrannies of time and the “oughts” that rule our lives. We might, as we reflect on the Sabbath, think about those who have no free time—those who have to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Or we might think of those whose jobs demand time commitments that are unreasonable. Years ago, we came to Florida for a family vacation at Disney World. I remember the father who was on his cell phone as we rode from the airport to the resort. “I’m on vacation,” he said. He listened for a few minutes and then said, “I’ll call you after we’ve checked in.” Or there was the lawyer who left the profession after he realized that his hourly wage was less than that of the woman who cleaned his NYC apartment. He was expected to work 60 to 70 hours, billable hours, a week. There is a new kind of slavery in our world.
Those who are lifting up this ancient tradition are not asking us to embrace those limiting practices that fostered, at their worst, resentment and a sense of imprisonment. They are much more aligned with Rabbi Kula’s practices. The Sabbath was intended to be life-giving and healing. It is an opportunity to step back from the busy-ness of the world and remember the grace of our relationship with God. It is an opportunity to look, from the perspective of God’s beloved children, at all the things in our world that work against that identity – at all that still burdens people, that weighs them down, bows them over – ourselves included! On the Sabbath we celebrate that God is still redeeming, still healing, still calling us and the world out of that which enslaves into newness of life.
Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled. I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.”
It’s a hard passage to hear – especially if we think about the promises and the hope that we proclaim during the Christmas season. We sing about the Prince of Peace. We live in the hope that divisions can be overcome. Yet, here, Jesus speaks not of peace – but of creating division.
Sometimes the church has a message that is little more than pablum – easy words that speak of Jesus, mild and meek. There is little in the message of the church that grabs people, that speaks to the world in which they live. Church becomes the feel good escape – an hour of hearing a happy message that if we just live right everything will be OK. We sing glad songs. We tell ourselves and each other that God is on our side and that we are, ultimately, winners.
There is another approach to Christianity that seems to take this morning’s passage very, very seriously. That approach embraces the angry Jesus, the righteous judge. Christianity seeks to define itself over against the world --- naming sin and sinners alike. We see this approach in every branch of Christianity. I remember reading session meeting minutes from about 1900. The session noted those who were misbehaving – a man who was seen in a local bar and a woman who had the audacity to break the sabbath by hanging her wash on the line. Session decided who was eligible to partake of the Lord’s Supper and who was ineligible. It acted as the righteous judge.
Our battles today are different. But many experience the church as a place of judgment. Some of the battles are very, very public. They are part of the political discourse of the day. They influence public policy. We hear people proclaim that they know what God’s will is, so they may tell others how it is they should act or be treated by the larger society. Think of the public battles that cite Christianity as their driving force. We’re still fighting about marriage. And the new battleground seems to be about bathrooms for transgender people.
The church seems, at times, to relish its role as judge and enforcer. It has taken to heart these words from Jesus, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.”
How many have or know the wounds inflicted by the church? There was the woman who struggled with her divorce – and could picture the angry God who was judging her – and finding her a failure. Today’s headlines and church fights remind us that many in Christianity have declared judgement on gays and lesbians, and now, on transgendered people. The church is drawing the lines and declaring who can be in and who is out. And households are divided.
Norma shared a post on Facebook this week, an article from a Texas newspaper about a mother’s experience with her child. Kimberly Shappley said, “From my earliest memories of my child, my child’s been very feminine. It’s just always been that way. I don’t know how else to put it. I’m a strong, spirit-filled, Bible-believing, born-again Christian. I’m a Republican. This was just not going to happen. At home I had three other boys. I had a very masculine home. Nothing feminine in the home, and Kai started telling us at age 3, “I’m a girl.”
Shappley spoke of her own discomfort with that declaration. “I held this religious mindset that this was something that I could change if I prayed enough and fasted enough.” The church had consistently told her that this child was unacceptable in the sight of God.
Is it the church’s God given responsibility to be the voice of judgment in our world? Is it to seek purity by creating division, by keeping people out who see things differently? How do we make sense of Jesus’ words? Is there a way of seeing them as a call in a world, in a society, that relishes setting one group against another? At first hearing, I find these words of Jesus difficult – scary, in fact. It doesn’t take long to see the damage done by those who feel that they are enforcing God’s righteousness on others. It’s tempting to ignore them.
There is always context to consider. As we hear these words we need to look beyond them and see how it is that Jesus brought division, how Jesus kindled a fire. One of the foundational tenets of the Reformed tradition is that scripture interprets scripture. We don’t, we shouldn’t, we can’t lift snippets or stories in the Bible out of the Bible and expect them to stand alone. We need to let the whole of the Biblical witness be a part of our attempt to interpret passages. So, when we hear these words from Jesus, we need to look beyond them. We look at how he lived. We look at how God’s people lived into God’s presence.
Now, if we look at Jesus' life it is true that he brought division. But not in the way we might think. His ministry was really one of striving to bridge divisions. He reached out to those whom the community of faith had routinely ignored and sidelined. He invited them into his circle. The whole community of faith was invited to join him in that circle of inclusion – but they chose to be divided from his presence, from his inclusivity, from his message of grace. The division he brought was not of his own making, but a sign of a continued brokenness.
If we look at Jesus’ life, it is true that he brought fire. But we have to think of the image of fire, of the way it is understood Biblically. We frequently portray fire as destructive. Yet, the Bible speaks of its ability to purify. “For he is like a refiner’s fire,” is a well known Biblical phrase quoted in Handel’s Messiah. We might remember the tongues as of fire that descended on the believers at Pentecost, giving them the courage to proclaim a message to a wider community. That courage and that message were not always welcomed. But, it was a fire that spread and started a transformation in various communities. Jesus’ fire was not a fire to destroy, but a fire to inflame a passionate desire to be connected with God’s realm.
As Sheppley struggled with her faith and the reality of who her child is she was finally able to declare, “I am a Bible-believing Christian. I love the Lord. But God makes no mistakes, and my child is fearfully and wonderfully made, just as the Scripture tells us.”
She went on to speak of the consequences of this affirmation of her child. “We’ve lost a lot of very important people out of our lives and there are some thoroughly burned bridges. My sister has disowned me. I watch cousins and aunts post horrible things about transgender people, trying to rally the troops against the militant gay agenda, that Satan was using these little kids. I will say we’ve lost the majority of our family. I feel like sometimes we’re on a little island, but through this transition, my kid, within a few short weeks, we weren’t having lying anymore. We weren’t having bed-wetting any- more. We have had no nightmares in the past year. No stealing at all. That all was just erased within a few weeks of this. I have a happy, healthy, outgoing, loving, beautiful, sweet little girl who loves Jesus and loves her brothers.”
When I look at Jesus’ ministry, he never condemned the vulnerable, the isolated, the feared, the different. He challenged people of faith to look beyond their legalism and see a broader world. His approach led to Paul’s declaration that there was no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. Those were the primary divisions of Paul’s day. We need to acknowledge the divisions in our world – and God’s call to look beyond them.
The passage in Hebrews this morning has that powerful declaration that we are surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses.” If we look back at the history of the church, what stands out? For what is the church powerfully and thankfully remembered? Is it for power plays that seek to protect its status? No. Is it for judgment leveled against those who are different? No. Is it for its participation in and tacit support of institutions and structures that have imprisoned and condemned people? No.
The powerful witness of the church is when it has chosen to follow Jesus’ example – to work against injustice, to liberate those who are imprisoned, to speak and work on behalf of those the world – even the church—has declared to be of little or no value. The church is thankfully remembered for ministries of compassion – hospitals and clinics that serve the sick, schools and universities that educate, programs that feed and lift people out of despair. That is the legacy of the cloud of witnesses – the testimony which informs how it is we are to be God’s people in this world.
Frank Rogers, Jr.’s chapter on Discernment in the book Practicing Our Faith has some well tested guidelines for sensing God’s will.
• There is fidelity to Scripture and tradition. (Again, that fidelity is to the broad picture!)
• Actions bring about the fruits of the Sprit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
• There is inner authority and peace.
• There is communal harmony – meaning that people are reconciled to one another. He notes that sometimes the Spirit’s work is, initially divisive, because it is working against injustice.
• Decisions and actions and approaches work toward the enhancement rather than the extinction of life.
“My child is fearfully and wonderfully made,” Sheppley declared. That declaration, that Godly declaration has caused division. It was not her intent. It was a consequence of her willingness to proclaim a life-giving, grace filled, redemptive truth to folks who could and would not accept it.
The sweet Jesus, meek and mild, does this world no good. Neither does the angry, destructive Jesus. The passionate Jesus, who saw the vulnerable, the weak, the forgotten, the disparaged, the hated and the feared, and offered them God’s loving acceptance and challenged his community to do the same, is the One we are to follow.
Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16
Luke 12: 32-40
One of the advantages of a long road trip is the opportunity to listen to some wonderful programs. There were two on NPR that dealt with memory. One was an episode of Fresh Air that featured neuroscientist Dean Burnett. The other was on the Diane Rehm Show with author, Luke Dittrich, who wrote about the consequences of brain surgery his grandfather had performed on a man named Henry Gustav Molaison who suffered from epilepsy.
Burnett talked about the way the brain functions. “We’re not mini computers,” he said. “The brain organizes itself in some strange ways.” He asserted that short term memory is less than a minute. If we remember something for more than a minute, that’s long term memory. However, our memories are not pure fact. As we remember the past, we embellish it. We all have our own “fish” stories!
Dittrich’s book is about a man who became famous because he couldn’t remember anything after the surgery that Dittrich’s grandfather had performed. The surgery was intended to alleviate Molaison’s severe epilepsy—epilepsy caused by a childhood accident. What it did was remove Molaison’s ability to remember anything after the surgery. He became a famous test subject in the area of neuroscience. He could carry on conversations. He could do crossword puzzles. He could even get better at tasks –although he couldn’t remember ever having done them before. He thought of himself as a young man – the age when he had the surgery. When he was given a mirror, he was surprised --- every time!
Molaison demonstrated how important memory is. We know that. All of us know or have known people who have lost or are losing their memory. They suffer – and those around them suffer. They lose their sense of identity. In a broader sense, we recognize the need for societal memory. “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” is a well-tested warning.
We, as God’s people, are shaped by memory. The Bible is a memory book – stories told (sometimes with the aggrandizing of fish stories) to make sense of God’s presence in the lives of particular people at particular times. The passage from Hebrews remembers the story of two great ancestors in the faith, Abraham and Sarah. They are remembered after looking back at others, Abel, Enoch, and Noah. The author goes on to remember Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, and others. Their stories give a sense of identity to those who would choose to accept the invitation to be grafted into the life of faith. Our rites call us to remember that the human story is enter-twined with God’s story. As we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we hear Jesus’ words, “Do this in remembrance of me.” In some ways, we remember the ancient past so that we may repeat it – joining ourselves to the ongoing story of God’s redemptive presence in the world.
However, this passage from Hebrews begins its journey into remembering with a powerful statement that looks forward instead of backwards. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
There is a danger in memory. That danger is nostalgia. We hear it all around us – that powerful mourning for days gone by. “Those were the days, my friend!” I’m Facebook friends with many high school classmates. It’s painful to read some of the reflections that look back to high school as the highlight of life. Many in our nation look back to some glory days as the goal for who we should be. It’s tempting, in the church, to look back and see better days. I remember when Easter Sunday meant the church was filled to overflowing. My home church set up rows of folding chairs. If you were late, you had to sit down front in an uncomfortable chair.
Yet the past has its flaws. I remember reading an article, years ago, that spoke of the danger of nostalgia. The article probably struck me because I had a parishioner who subscribed to a magazine titled “Nostalgia.” When the past is glorified, it's flaws are ignored. One of my favorite stories from Westminster Presbyterian Church is an Easter story. One woman told of coming and finding the pew where she usually sat filled to overflowing. She squeezed in. One of the Easter attendees said to her, “You would think that those of you who come every Sunday would stay home on Easter and leave room for us!” The church of my childhood had many C and E Christians (Christmas and Easter), those who came for those high holy days and nothing else. The church of the past has flaws just as the church of the present has flaws. The same can be said of the society in which we live. Every era has its shortcomings. When the past becomes our goal, we are losing sight of the ways it falls short.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The author looked back at ancestors in the faith and spoke of their commitment to future that they would never fully know. Hear the words about Abraham. “For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” It goes on to declare, “All these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them…if they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had the opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one.” There is no nostalgia here. The memory of the past impels the readers, the hearers of these words to look forward, to be drawn by and shaped by a vision of God’s realm.
This morning’s gospel lesson has familiar words in it: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” We often hear those words as the offering is presented. We hear the word treasure and think of goods, or of financial resources. Our treasure can be counted – in bank accounts, in terms of real property. But, there might be a different way of hearing these words – especially if we consider the context. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s God pleasure to give you the kingdom.” What greater treasure could there be than God’s realm? What greater treasure can there be than living in a place where God’s ways are embraced – where love wins over fear, where justice is available to all – particularly to those who are vulnerable, where compassion and mercy are known, shared, and experienced? What if the treasure is that for which we pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?” That treasure is, as the writer of the Hebrews wrote, something that is promised that is yet to be known. It calls us forward. It grabs us and shapes us to live differently in this world.
John Shelley said that there is a paradoxical nature to faith. It helps us cope with the world – yet it may also provoke the world. For if our treasure is a world that is shaped by God’s values, we are challenged to critique the world in which we live and work for a world which is a deeper, truer reflection of the inbreaking realm of God.
We, in the church, do ourselves and the world – and God – a disservice when we think that the best days are in the past. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. The past, even at its best, is not God’s realm. It shows the signs of brokenness – in racism, sexism, violence, wars, and injustice. That is true in the church. It is also true of every society and nation that has/or now exists. We remember in order to know who we are and to be reassured that God has been present in the past. But, the promise is for something better. The promise is that God is still active, that God is still inviting us to participate in living toward a future that we will never know, on earth, in its fullness.
"Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” What we love calls to us. If we love the past, we are stuck and we have no hope. If our treasure is God’s promised future – a future that is not only heavenly but earthly, too, then we are, out of love, to work for that future. “Be dressed for action,” Jesus said, “and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.”
Perhaps we dream too small. Perhaps we have been unwilling to let the majesty, the magnitude, the broadness, and the wonder of God’s heaven be the treasure that shapes, forms, defines, and calls us. It is that vision that has toppled systems and nations that have perpetuated injustice. It is that vision that has invited us to new understandings of God’s forgiving, redeeming, and reconciling love.
Molaison couldn’t remember. So he couldn’t move forward. We, God’s people, share the stories. We remember. Not to live in the past, but to find in the past that there are those who lived by faith, who believed in God’s promises. They set out to seek the unknown. There are stories and stories and stories. They invite us to set out as they did, seeking God’s promised realm – breaking into the world we know, and beckoning from heaven itself. Our broken world needs the bold faith God invites us to live.