August 7, 2022
A few weeks ago, one of my cousins posted on facebook a copy of the deed to the land my great-great-great grandfather Christian Beck purchased in 1835 in Northwestern Ohio.
If I had seen it a few years ago, I would have thought, how cool! But as I’ve immersed myself in Native American history and learned more about the forced removal and genocide of Native Americans—the Potawatomie who had lived on that land had been forcibly removed west only a few years earlier—the deed was a reminder of all that history and of all the ways my ancestors, who had come to America in search of a better life, and in their case, freedom to worship and express their faith as a dissident religious community, were bound up in that larger story of dispossession and genocide.
That story, America’s story, my story, is tied up in notions of American exceptionalism and the doctrine of discovery—the idea that European settlers could claim as their own property land on which native peoples had lived for millennia. But that story is also tied up with the biblical story in so many ways, perhaps most notably in the story retold and interpreted in our reading from the letter to the Hebrews.
Well, it’s not really a letter. It’s more of a sermon than a letter. It doesn’t have any of the characteristics of a piece of correspondence. There’s no back and forth. There is no conversation between the author and their audience; no questions asked or answered. We don’t know who wrote it—the attribution to Paul is ancient but his name does not appear in the text. We do not know when it was written, probably around the year 100. We don’t know who the intended audience was.
Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating, powerful, and beautifully written text. We encounter it at various points in the three-year lectionary cycle. Much of the first half of the book was read last year, in October and November. And now we return to it for a few weeks.
Our reading today is extracted from the 11th chapter. To this point, the author has been laying out their understanding of Christ, using imagery from the Jewish Temple and Jewish sacrifice to contrast those traditions with Jesus Christ, who is the Great High Priest and whose sacrifice on the cross both fulfilled and brought to an end the need for animal sacrifice.
Now the author switches gears. Chapter 11 is an explication of faith, and provides litany of the heroes of the faith; of which the verses concerning Abraham that we read are a part:
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.” It might seem that the author is setting up the familiar dichotomy to us—faith against science, faith against reason, faith against facts. But that’s not the case. David Bentley Hart translates this verse as “Now faithfulness is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of unseen realities.”
In other words, by using “substance” Hart is stressing that it is real, tangible, objective over against something that isn’t real. But there’s something else to note in Hart’s translation; he uses the word faithfulness, rather than faith. We tend to think of faith as something static. We either have it or we don’t. But it’s not. It’s about relationship, about process.
It’s not about whether we can say the words of the Nicene Creed without stumbling, or without crossing our fingers behind our back. It’s about trusting in God and centering ourselves in God even when we’re not certain that God is there.
We’re given examples of faith to guide us in what follows. The author takes us on a journey through the great heroes of faith, citing the examples of Abel, Enoch, and Noah, before coming to the greatest exemplar of biblical faith: Abraham. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents.”
In fact, Abraham died without God’s promise to him having been fulfilled. At his death, he had one son, Isaac, and the only land he actually possessed was the land he purchased for his wife Sarah’s burial place. He died, as the author of Hebrews writes, All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, … But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one.”
Strangers and foreigners.
The author of this text is writing to a community that is profoundly not at home in its environment. Confessing Jesus Christ as Lord in the first and second centuries meant going against the ideology and culture of the Roman Empire. The cities in which they lived were expressions of that ideology, of Roman power and prestige. It was unescapable, part of everyday life. But our author reminds them of their true citizenship in the city of God.
Strangers, foreigners. It may be hard for us to think of ourselves that way. Certainly in this time when Christian Nationalism runs rampant through our culture. It’s difficult to imagine a Christian faith untethered to the language and symbolism of American exceptionalism.
Of course, we may feel estranged from all of that. To watch our rights being eroded; the end of Roe, the attacks on our political institutions may leave us profoundly alienated and disoriented. And that so much of it is being done in the name of Christianity may anger and frighten us. It may even make us uncomfortable identifying as Christian or confessing our faith publicly. And yet even in our discomfort we may be reminded that “the we” I am using is made up of people of different races and ethnicities, different places of origin, different sexual and gender identities.
This past couple of weeks, the bishops of the Anglican Communion have been meeting; for the first time in fourteen years. A gathering that was supposed to take place every ten years was delayed, first by internal division within the communion, then by COVID. Disagreement over sexuality and same sex marriage received much of the press and threatened to disrupt the gathering. Beneath that noise were days of relationship-building among bishops and their spouses from across the globe. My social media feeds were filled with photos and comments about those relationships, being built and strengthened across great cultural divides, united by and in Christ. A reminder that our identity as Anglicans, as Episcopalian Christians, is not just about the people next to us in the pews or others in the Episcopal Church, but that we are part of a church with members across the globe. Indeed, we are strangers and foreigners here.
We may even, at times, feel alienated from God, strangers and foreigners wandering far from home with no map or road to follow. We may not feel at home in our bodies or our skin. The faith of Abraham may seem an unattainable goal. But God does not abandon us when we feel lost and alone. There may be signs of God’s presence in the wilderness or the foreign land, signs that God is with us, caring for us, carrying us, leading us toward that city where justice and peace reign.