We have watched the Middle Eastern refugee crisis unfold before our eyes, on TV and in the internet as some 13.5 million residents of Syria have been displaced by the 5-year civil war, half of them fleeing the war-torn nation for asylum elsewhere. In 2015, Europe, that is to say the EU, saw more than 1.3 refugees, a number more than double the previous high set in the wake of the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet Union. These numbers are staggering and the scope of the human tragedy are incomprehensible to most of us. More familiar to us is the backlash—the calls to halt all immigration Most of the world watches this enormous tragedy unfold with cold hearts and a sense of helplessness in the face of its magnitude.
We are a nation of immigrants, at least that’s the myth we tell ourselves, but the truth of the matter is, that for most of us, those who come from families who have been here for generations and came originally from the British Isles, or Northern or Western Europe, we have settled very comfortably into the places we live. Even if we aren’t originally from Madison, it’s likely you’ve thought, as I did yesterday morning while riding bike along Lake Monona and enjoying a beautiful, seasonable summer day, that Madison is a wonderful place to live, and that I would rather be here than most any other place I’ve lived.
In spite of that, in spite of the beautiful day and the beautiful scenery, as we biked Corrie and I noticed something else. While the overwhelming majority of those biking along Lake Monona were white, African-Americans were there as well, individuals and families, fishing along the shore. No doubt some of them were there simply to have fun. It’s very likely that others, perhaps most, were hoping to make a meal or more of what they caught. Amidst the beauty of a leisurely Saturday, we were reminded again of the deep racial divide in our city, the parallel worlds, the parallel communities in which we live.
The conflict over immigration here and in Europe is connected with another conflict, that over our nation and culture itself. We see evidence of that conflict in the anger and fear that are expressed by so many, by the rancorous arguments over our criminal justice system and policing and our current election season.
That conflict extends to our faith as Christians offer their support for one candidate or another, using theological arguments to support their case and bolstering their political position with scripture citations. We may recoil at the statements of pastors whose political views we don’t share. Some of us might be inclined to try to divorce our faith from the world of politics entirely. In this climate, in this conflict, finding a way through the noise, the anger, and the fear, can be an enormous challenge.
The reading from Hebrews may offer us some help in making our way through the coming months. Although called a letter, Hebrews is more likely a sermon. It’s a beautifully written, profound exploration of the meaning of Jesus Christ. Its lofty language, use of symbolism, and reinterpretation of Hebrew Scripture in light of Jesus Christ has fascinated and shaped Christian worship and theology. And in this chapter, chapter 11, the author offers an extensive meditation on the nature of faith, and bolsters his argument with examples from biblical history. Our reading includes only one of the examples, the archetypes of faith, Abraham and Sarah.
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. On the face of it, this seems to suggest the old conflict between faith and reason. It seems that we’re being instructed to believe in spite of all evidence to the contrary. In fact, our translation doesn’t really capture what the author is trying to say. First, the word translated as assurance here is elsewhere translated as being. The best translation might be “faith is the reality of things hoped for.”
Likewise, the word translated as conviction in “conviction of things not seen” ought better read “proof.” What the author seems to be saying is not that faith ought to be contrasted with empirical evidence, but rather that it is part of a process that faith moves toward understanding, realizing that which is now beyond demonstration. “Faith seeking understanding” to use a phrase made famous by St. Anselm.
The author gives us then the example of Abraham and Sarah. Here again, the greek isn’t quite clear on whether Abraham or Sarah is meant to be the primary example. By faith Abraham and Sarah obeyed when they were called to set out for a place that God promised them; not knowing where they was going; by faith they stayed in the land promised to them, as in a foreign land, living in tents. By faith they received power of procreation even though he was too old and Sarah was barren.” Then we are left with that majestic vision: 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.”
To think of ourselves as strangers and foreigners requires an imaginative leap. The author of Hebrews and those in his audience were comfortable with that idea. As followers of Jesus Christ they proclaimed allegiance to someone who had been executed by the Roman Empire, by their rulers. They belonged to a community whose existence was precarious and by belonging, they renounced their ties to family and became members of a new community. For them to understand themselves as strangers and foreigners was not a difficult leap.
For us, for most of us it is. When we hear those words, “strangers and foreigners” what comes to mind? Do we immediately grow fearful? What do we think when we see a Muslim woman in hijab? Can we imagine ourselves in a refugee camp somewhere, or making that perilous journey from a war-torn homeland in search of peace and city somewhere thousands of miles away? Can we put ourselves in the place of our fellow humans fleeing for safety?
We are comfortable here in this city, in this nation. Our nation and culture have been shaped by Christian values and Christian symbolism. We saw all of that on display at the two conventions last month. We are at home here, and those unlike us are the strangers and foreigners.
To uproot us, to move us out of our comfort zone and our complacency. To recognize that what we should be striving for is not what lies behind us, whether in our own past, or in our nation, culture, or church’s past, but that our goal lies beyond us, beyond our imagination, and like Abraham and Sarah, we can only catch glimpses of it. That is what the author of Hebrews is telling us. That is also what Jesus is telling his disciples in today’s gospel.
Remember, they are on the journey to Jerusalem. And Jesus’ words are advice to his followers for that journey, but his words are also advice to us.
Jesus tells his disciples “Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. In the midst of present struggle and uncertainty, in the midst of whatever fears we might harbor for ourselves, our loved ones, the world, Jesus offers comfort and hope. He also confronts us with all the ways we seek to protect ourselves from pain, suffering, uncertainty. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
What are your priorities? What are your deepest passions, your loftiest goals? What are your hopes? Are you like Abraham and Sarah strangers and foreigners? Are you citizens of that other country? Are you like the disciples, striving for the reign of God? Where is your treasure, where is your heart?
To live by the priorities of the Kingdom of God means to allow the words of Jesus to become our beacon and guide, to let them set our priorities. To live that way is to live like Abraham and Sarah, responding to God’s call, and taking hold of God’s promises. No, we might not see the kingdom of God reign on earth, but like Abraham and Sarah, we might see glimpses of that other country, as we embrace the stranger and foreigner, the widow and orphan, as we work to break down the barriers that divide us, to create a more just community, a more just world.