12th Sunday after Pentecost
This week’s texts are forward looking in different, if overlapping ways, and so I attempted to a certain extent to consider them together.
In Genesis, Abram laments that he and Sarai remain childless together; he is unhappy with his present situation, and names his discontent before God. God promises a different future. Look at the heavens, she says. Count the stars.
It’s a mischievous instruction, because of course, he can’t. There are too many. And God promises to make Abram’s family like those innumerable stars, an infinite kindom.
Abram believes God, and God considers him righteous.
Likewise, Hebrews 11, a classic text for discussions of faith, begins with the assurance of things hoped for, conviction of things not seen. It’s all about the stuff that’s out ahead, the places, things, and people you imagine, the world you want, someday, hopefully sooner rather than later. The good future God promised.
Hebrews 11 lauds Abraham, remembering that promise God made and kept, that Sarah would bare a child. A baby, a sign that their faith was not in vain. It seems to me that one needs a lot of faith to bring children into this world, with all the pain and sorrow that surround us on an almost daily basis. The world is hurting; what then does it mean to have faith in God’s promises for the future?
In re-reading Hebrews 11 for the hundredth time, it’s the latter verses that get me, starting with verse 13: “All of these died in faith without having received the promises.”
Strangers, foreigners, seeking a better life – a homeland. They didn’t get there in this life. They didn’t see those promises fulfilled.
They could have turned back, the author of Hebrews says. If they’d been thinking of where they came from, maybe they’d think things were okay as they were. Maybe even better than being out here in this in-between place, living in tents instead of more permanent dwellings. Why leave? Why upset the balance, why disrupt, why change? But they didn’t turn back, because they desired something better, something they must not really have even known yet. They believed in this homeland they had only imagined.
What sort of city does God prepare for us? What sort of future might we build, here and now, if we believed we were capable of something more than mere stability, than a commitment to the way things are or the way they were, instead of what they could be? Rather than patient, sorrowful prayer in the face of violence and injustice, what if the promise of innumerable blessings – like the stars in the sky – called us out into unfamiliar places, out of faith that the “desire for a better country,” as Hebrews says, could help us shape a better neighborhood, city, or state?
“They would have had an opportunity to return,” Hebrews says, but they did not. Forward together, not one step back, as some of our neighbors in North Carolina might put it.
This brings me to Luke. I love how this passage begins in the NRSV: “Do not be afraid, little flock…”
Little Flock. We are so often like a Little Flock of scared sheep, who don’t understand what is happening around us, what is required of us, what is offered to us, too. With our youngest Sunday school class I play a game called Hide and Sheep, which is like Hide and Seek, except that whoever is “It” is the Shepherd, and everyone hiding is a Sheep. There is a lot of BAAing as the Shepherd gathers the Little Flock back into the sheepfold, where they are safe.
We are like sheep, a Little Flock of people called a church, a community comforted by one another’s presence.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus addresses the people as a little flock, makes promises for the future, instructs them not simply to sit back and lazily await the Son of Man’s return. Rather, he describes waiting that is alert, dressed for action, tending to the lamps so that they burn as long as they need to burn. Light a fire, and don’t let it go out.
Perhaps you’ve heard or used the phrase to light a fire under someone, to indicate encouraging someone, maybe yourself, to get to work in earnest. As I read about the people tending to their lamps, I thought of this turn of phrase, trying to imagine what the equivalent of tending to the lamps might be, now. Do we wait for God’s good future as if it’s a long way off, as if we’re powerless to do anything in the meantime? Or do we wait actively, eagerly, impatiently – lighting fires, stoking flames, burning away injustice like so much dead brush?
As Jesus says later in Luke 12, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (12:49) And if you read on from there, indeed, his words might light a fire under you, as he asks, “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” (12:56-57)
In the wake of tragedy, as we’ve experienced again and again this summer, I hear a lot of people express how helpless they feel, and I understand. I won’t pretend I haven’t felt that, too. I am sure I will feel it again. But I’ve also become suspicious of that response, because increasingly it feels rooted in an understanding of “help” that translates into wanting to swoop in and save everyone, to fix things. And it’s true, you can’t do that. If that’s what “help” means, if that’s the only way to respond to tragedy and make things better, than perhaps we are helpless. There’s no quick fix, whether we’re talking about gun violence, toxic masculinity, structural racism, militarized police, homophobia, or prisons. How does one avoid feeling helpless when the reasons to grieve are so numerous I’m unwilling to choose just one as an example for a sermon? It’s too much.
Yet the inability to turn the tables overnight, to be the “savior,” isn’t the same as being helpless, and the sooner we drop the notion that we need to be the savior in order to act at all the sooner we can join those who have already kindled and are tending to the fires, those who refuse to believe they are helpless, but are acting in a host of different ways around the country and world to fan the holy spirit flames of justice. Those who know how, as Jesus says, to interpret the present time. Those who work and wait impatiently for the fulfillment of so many of God’s promises. It’s too much if you think you have to tackle it all alone, all at once, if you think you have to lead. But what if all God asks is that you follow someone else’s lead, tend to your little lamp with the people around you, in anticipation of and participation in God’s promises?
I confess, I honestly doubt at times whether the arc of the moral universe really bends toward justice, as people love to quote. I distrust progress narratives because progress does not appear inevitable. Some things don’t change if we don’t change them, and even then they change slowly, too slowly. But better slow than not at all.
It’s a long game, this life, this waiting and working. And we’ve got to know we might die before we get wherever it is we hope we’re going. But God forbid we sit still. God forbid we turn back.