Ninth Sunday After Pentecost Genesis 15:1-6, Psalm 33, Hebrews 11:1-16, Luke 12:32-40
I do not often throw my cell phone in a burst of frustration.
I suppose this is one of the ways owning a smartphone might actually be sanctifying, because unless there is a large and welcoming couch nearby few few of us would really become so angry that we would throw the hundreds of dollars worth of technology in our pockets at the floor.
But in 2010 I had a dumb phone, one of those with the full keyboard that you flip open. This kind of device was a total novelty to me, because in England we all learned to text on a 0-9 number pad. But in the summer of 2010 I had first moved to the USA to serve a small church as an intern. I had been there about a month, and this meant it was time for a haircut, which at that time involved a fringe that shot down over my forehead and eyes like a comma, and kept in place with hairspray.
My first month in America had taught me many things, and the first of which was: I needed a haircut.
So I called the barbershop to schedule an appointment. This is the conversation that ends with me throwing my cell phone in a fit of frustration. And the conversation went something like this:
I would like to book an appointment
What was that?
..I am looking to book an appointment
I really can’t understand you, can you say that again
…I want a haircut when can I come in
I am sorry your accent is very thick, please say that again?
That was the moment when I first felt like a foreigner, a stranger. And here I was, alone in a land where I had no family and had not yet made friends. In the afternoon sun of a late September in 2010, I balled my fists and shook with rage and fear, suddenly very aware that I was on my own amongst a people who didn’t entirely understand me, and who I did not entirely understand either.
Yet here I am nine years later, and I am still a foreigner. I have habituated myself to saying tom-ay-to rather than tom-ah-to at a sandwich bar, sure, but my foreignness runs deep. Keeping up with a political discussion is still incomprehensible, and discussing anything like policing, welfare, health care, monarchy, cars, guns, taxation, and civil rights, and how to make tea, it becomes apparent that whatever language we think we have in common is in fact an illusion, because we comprehend one-another about as much as if I were a Comcast representative attempting to deliver meaningful customer support to their own paying subscribers.
I am incurably a foreigner in this land.
And I think that you are too.
Today we heard the writer of Hebrews describe how Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham were strangers and foreigners in their own times, to whom God spoke, and who believed what God had said to them. Now it was Abraham who left his father’s house to become a wanderer upon the face of the earth, yet all were exiles. It was faith which made them such, because they heard God and followed his ways when they saw all around them very real alternatives, other ways of living which offered a more concrete security and visible prosperity. Indeed when we meet Abram today, he and his wife have settled in the place where they dwell, and have made the kinds of sacrifices and life-changes necessary to ensure some kind of meaningful existence in that land, which meant naming an heir who was not of his blood, Eliezer of Damascus, who would be the one to care for them when they grew old and in return would be granted the prosperity and possessions that Sarah and Abram had gained in their time.
This is not the first time that we have met Abram and Sarah, of course. Their journey with God takes up the second quarter of the book of Genesis and began with their being called out of Ur, for God had told them that from them would come a great nation whose purpose was to be a blessing to the nations. He established a covenant with them, promising that through them will come a people who will bless all nations in chapter 12. Obediently, they left and traveled all the way to Canaan, where they have have negotiated a bit of land upon which to graze their animals.
This foreigner with his herds finds himself in a land far from his ancestors, and has conceded that him and his wife will die childless, and all of his possessions will go to those he has hired to care for them. Perhaps this is one way of thinking of being a blessing to the nations, to provide a life for others. Abram has been dutiful and faithful in his following of God’s ways, and this has cost him and Sarah quite dearly, facing the end of their lives with uncertainty for themselves, and no way to see how God’s promise that through them would come a great nation who would bless the world was in any way true. And so when God appears to Abram this time, we can begin to understand how the conversation goes down.
God says “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
And from Abram’s heart does not pour forth obedience or praise, as in previous encounters with God, but a question:
“O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”
“Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.”
Abram is asking the question which matters most: How will you do what you said you’d do? Which is another way of asking, can I trust you?
Sometimes in the Scriptures when these kinds of questions are asked, the response is some kind of miraculous apportion, a flame of fire, an angel, some military victory, or the like.
Yet the Lord instead takes Abram outside to look at the sky at night. “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
So far in Abram’s journey many of the things which have been asked of him by God or by circumstance have been things fully within Abram’s ability to ensure. Leaving the ancestral home; Making a covenant to ensure peace between him and those around him; defeating his enemies and saving Lot his relative. He has done righteous acts, yet God did not call it righteousness. Not until this moment, when Abram acknowledges to God that there is something that he cannot do for himself.
It seems so mundane. No burning offering, no oil poured upon the head, no blood-soaked sword. Look at the stars of the sky. That is how numerous your people will be.
Do you believe me?
Yes. I believe you.
This is righteousness: Believing that God can bring about his purpose for us, for his people, and for the whole world.
And in that word Abram becomes more a foreigner than he ever was when he was just a wandering Aramean bouncing between Egypt and Canaan. For in this moment he has declared that the future is not his to control, but has surrendered himself to the future God will unfold in God’s time.
Abram because of his faith becomes a foreigner, and he becomes a foreigner precisely because this way of living, according to the word of God and the promise of a future not visible from this terrestrial and creaturely vantage, not visible from a conventional or natural way of thinking, are incomprehensible from the outside. Just as incomprehensible as my speech over the phone to a barbershop secretary.
Abram is a foreigner, not because he is a man from Ur living in Canaan, but because he has placed his trust in the promises of God despite not yet seeing evidence of their fulfillment. Just the stars in the sky, common to all of us, though there are fewer visible from where I live in Annapolis, and yet transformed into an everlasting promise because of the word God spoke to him.
Often it is tempting to think that it is piety and virtue which are pleasing to God, and are the most fitting way to live as witnesses to God’s love in this world. And who will be offended by our prayers prayed in private, or that we work diligently and without complaint, and make our lives open and available to our neighbors. But this is not what is called righteousness, for it takes no faith to be this kind of person. It might take a good upbringing and a diligent education, but faith makes no difference here. The kind of faith which leads to righteousness is the faith of Abraham, who believed that God would fulfill his word because that word came from God, and no other reason.
I am neither especially pious, nor do my virtues shine like a lantern in a dark room. Yet I am a foreigner. And that isn’t because I am a brit living in America.
It is because I have placed my trust in a future given by God that I cannot see, the only surety being that this future upon which my hope is cast, in promised by Christ who rose from the dead.
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” says the Lord.
And this is your hope too, for we are a people who believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. We say it every week.
And this is why you are a foreigner.
I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed that you don’t fit in, but this past week is as good as any time to realize it.
Over a two day period from August 3rd and 4th, 32 people died in mass shootings in two separate locations. This is apparently the kind of run-of-the-mill atrocity which our news cycle has managed to script into their daily talking points. One listens to the discussions from late night desks and scans the op-eds and the same talking points compete with one-another to win the round of ‘whose interpretation of reality gets the last word’. Those of us who have come to know that there is a God, and that God has destined his people for a kingdom of justice and peace and joy, and even now is establishing this rule upon earth, will hear such things as one might hear the clicks and hums of the deep space radio-waves picked up by an observatory.
Which is to say, utterly alien and completely incompressible.
I mean did you notice how quickly these acts of violence were no longer about people who had suffered, people who had lost someone they loved, but were almost instantly transformed into pieces of evidence about the second amendment or mental health or racism? How could that make any sense to us who know that all people are given life by God and are imbued with the dignity of his wondrous image? How could the beauty of their souls be so quickly forgotten, unless we realize that our hopes are not the same as the conflicting desires of those who live around us?
If there is a sensation of loneliness and anger associated with that knowledge, that an impassable rift has emerged between yourself and the world, I do not know how to help you, for there is no way back once we have set our hope in God. There is comfort, here amongst the people of God, when we are fed with the spiritual food and drink of Christ’s body and blood, but there is no way to unhear what we have heard, no way for Christ to undeclare the promise he declared.
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
If we can receive that word from Christ and place our hope in him, we will have gained a righteousness in God’s sight, which means friendship with him, and it is that friendship which makes sense of what Christ next says:
Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
The moment we realize that our faith has made us foreign, that salvation has made us strangers, we can let go of whatever vain hopes we’d had of being understood or understanding those who do not share this hope, and we can take the risk of doing as Christ commanded: Selling our possessions and giving to the needy. Christ has not asked this of us because he thinks its a good way of fixing everything that is wrong with the world. Far from it.
Rather, our abandoning of the ways of the world to follow the way of Jesus Christ is a sign of our faith, a kind of creed declared by the works of our hands. I am sure there are many who had their talking points about why the poor are poor, and how they can be helped. There still are. But we foreigners have been sent to this land to be a blessing, to give and not seek for reward here, rather looking to the Kingdom that is to come.
In that same spirit, the deeds which proceed from that hope in the kingdom to come are nothing less than the honoring of the persons who have died, and the comfort of those who mourn them, long before we seek some temporal victory in rhetoric, internet discussion, or legislature. Our place as foreigners, exiled by our hope, is to first see the world anew and then to follow boldly, anticipating an inheritance which we cannot now see.
Let us then who have set our hope on God’s ability to bring about his promises give of ourselves for the relief of those who lack, to mourn for those who die suddenly and unprepared, to acknowledge wickedness no matter from which parties policies it proceeds, and find our security in the company of Christ’s followers around his table.
For God will certainly bring about his kingdom upon earth, and all that threatens the goodness and justice of his ways will pass into dust and ashes. Today therefore let our faith be renewed. Who knows, perhaps we may see God use us to establish his reign over acts of violence and terror, or how the stranger and alien is received, or the threat against the disabled, the aged, and the unborn, or those who suffer addictions, or have no safe place to sleep, or a thousand other things. That God will bring these things into his good ordering is our certain hope and at the very least we can mourn the great suffering around us precisely because we know that such suffering is unnecessary and will end. I do not know how these sufferings will end, but if we see with eyes of faith we can at begin to live towards that Kingdom, through tears and grief now, yes, and then with whatever courage and inspiration and action may follow afterwards.
In truth we are foreigners, but God is making a home for his people. May we by faith, and faithful action, prove to be amongst them.