11th Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary
August 8, 2010
Genesis 12: 1-8 and Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. 8By 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. 9By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old — and Sarah herself was barren — because he considered him faithful who had promised. 12Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”
“Living in tents.” Perhaps the reason why this idea has always had such power for me is because there have been times in my life when everything I thought I knew was upended and I found myself living moment to moment. “One day at a time,” the 12-steppers say. Actually, when your world collapses around you, sometimes you live one breath at a time. You live by faith in a way that is hard to replicate when everything calms down and life becomes more predictable again. This reading from Hebrews captures so much of that sense of living by faith, depending on the promises you believe that I wanted to take an opportunity to spend some time thinking and talking about tents. Tents are part of our Biblical history and they offer a powerful metaphor for our life of faith.
Here is Abram’s story: “Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
4So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, 6Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7Then the LORD appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him. 8From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the LORD and invoked the name of the LORD.”
It sounds so simple doesn’t it? God just says go, and they go. Abram, son of a wealthy family had moved with his father from their home in Ur, near what is now Baghdad. They were wealthy and it’s easy to imagine that they lived quite comfortably in a family compound. As in that part of the world, the house had large arched arcaded which were open to the desert air, catching every breeze as it stirred in the mornings and evenings. There were most likely fountains in courtyards and corners aerating the water, cooling the house, providing the soothing sounds at every turn.
Abram’s father, Terah, had moved at God’s urging from Ur to Haran which is up near the current border between Syria and Turkey. After living with his father’s family there, God calls Abram to move south, taking the son of his dead brother Nahor with him. It was there in a foreign land with no one but his wife and nephew with him that Abram received the promises which we hear of today. “I will make you a great nation. Your offspring shall be more than the stars in the sky.” He was 75 when he arrived in the land settled by the Caananites, and as we know from other stories, he was 99 years old when his only son was born. And we know that it was more than two generations later that the promise of sons to populate a nation began to be born.
Waiting. Trusting. The writer of Hebrews lifts up Abraham as the model of faith. Trusting in what is unseen, willing to keep faith year after year, though there is yet no sign that the joys which are promised will ever come true. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, our ancestors in faith never saw it. They were waiting for the city whose architect and builder was God, says the writer.
I guess it’s the insecurity of ‘living in tents’ that captures my ear in these readings. Going through a divorce and the breakup of our family, going through the struggle to be in business for myself, going through down-sizing from the best job I ever had made we well-acquainted with uncertainty and insecurity. All those experiences drove me to prayer, to Bible study, to deeper understanding of how God could be with us. They were the beginning of understanding how God could be at work in the face of the unexpected. ‘Living in tents’ has become a metaphor for me of learning to wait for the blessing, trusting that even what looks like disaster may bring something beautiful.
I’ve come to believe that the need for security is what drives so many of our human decisions. We want to wake up every day knowing that we will have what we need. That when we come home at night, the house will still be standing, the refrigerator ready to offer the supplies for dinner. We want almost more than anything else to know that we will get up every morning and the world will still be the way we are used to it.
A sudden change in health, a loss of a job, a death…..well, make your own list, can plunge us into blackness. How could this happen? It is when we need God to be in a good secure place for us that it so often seems as if God is gone along with everything else we counted on. And so we live in limbo until we can regain some sense of order. Living in tents. The in-between time.
But we know from Abram’s story that faith has its reward. Dreams come true. One son is enough to build a nation. God is faithful, Abram tells us across the centuries. On the darkest day, when even Jesus felt the sting of the world crashing around him, God was there, showing us how deeply we are loved. Every promise ever made to God’s people has come to life in the resurrection of Jesus. God’s power is made perfect in the weak, in the dazed, in the longing of God’s people. Just as God’s heart of love was shining forth at Jesus’ death, so God walks with us in our darkest moments. In those tents of insecurity, God sits with us. Holding us, waiting with us, surrounding us with people to assure us that we are not alone. There is a city waiting for us, but in the meantime, God walks with us through all our sorrows, all our fears.
“Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” Not ashamed. We may be living one day at a time in our tent life, our faith may be the tiniest glimmer, but God is proud of us. And so we wait.
And now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.