11 August 2013
A Better Country
A Sermon for Proper 14(19)C
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas, I read North Toward Home, Willie Morris' beautifully-written and evocative 1967 memoir. He describes his boyhood in Mississippi, his days as a student and a journalist in Texas, and his eventual journey to a new life as a writer and editor in New York City. His picture of the South and of Texas spoke with authenticity to my own experience. And like many another bright young Southerner, I found more there. There was something in North Toward Home that spoke to a deep and often unspoken disatisfaction with my homeland, and the life that custom and tradition seemed to lay before my feet. Later too, I made my own journey north toward home. It was not easy, and I discovered just how hard it is to leave one home to find another! Eventually I did find my feet, and my home, here in this community.
That book, or more accurately my experience of reading it and then of my own journey, came back to me very powerfully as I read over this Sunday's lessons. The second of them, our epistle, seemed in particular to speak to those experiences. In its extended contemplation of the story of Abraham, a small part of which we also read in our Old Testament lesson, the epistle puts a special focus on the idea of a better, heavenly country, rather than an earthly one, as the destination to which not just Abraham but his modern heirs travel.
Interestingly the writer of Hebrews does this by completely repurposing the story of Abraham/Abram as it is told in Genesis. In the Hebrew Bible the story of Abraham, in fact of all the patriarchs, looks beyond the years of wandering and slavery to the Promised Land into which Moses and Joshua lead God's people, Abraham's descendants. But the author of Hebrews, like St Paul in Romans, turns that story on its head! Instead of emphasising a Promised Land, a piece of geography, as the fulfilment of God's promise, he all but ignores it. He emphasises instead Abraham's decision to leave all that was familiar and face the unknown with only God's promise to sustain him. His focus is on the 'better country' that Abraham's spiritual descendants will receive as a fulfilment of God's promise.
What is this better country? Obviously to the author of Hebrews it is not the Promised Land of the Hebrew Bible. In fact it's not a place that can be found on the map at all. Instead it is a heavenly country. So it seems that my youthful difficulties may have been the simple result of thinking I could go North, or indeed any direction, to find home.
Now this heavenly country has been celebrated in hymns and gospel songs of all kinds. It was the subject of one of the great classics of Christian literature, St. Augustine's City of God. It is the destination sought by Christian, the pilgrim of Pilgrim's Progress, when he runs away crying, Life, Life, Eternal Life. But to understand our readings and what they are saying to us, we must peel away all those familiar layers of song and story, and look at what the author of Hebrews actually says about the better country.
First and foremost we've seen that is it called not just a better country, but a heavenly one. What does that mean? Well, it explains why the author of Hebrews de-emphasised the promised land of the Hebrew Bible! What would we want with an earthly country, even one flowing with milk and honey, if we are journeying toward a heavenly country? Much of the Hebrew Bible (for example, the whole series from Joshua and Judges to the end of 2 Kings, or 1 Chronicles through Ezra-Nehemiah) provides an object lesson in the trials, pitfalls, and failures associated with an earthly country!
But more than that, this better, heavenly country is to be our homeland. For Hebrews reminds us that we are the spiritual successors of Abraham, who left his country and all his family to wander as a stranger and a foreigner on this earth. Like him, we have become a people in search of a homeland, refugees for faith in a world where others have safety and roots that we lack. This is an insecure and lonely situation to be in. What would induce Abraham, or us for that matter, to voluntarily put ourselves in that situation? According to Hebrews, what made him, and makes us, do it is the desire for a better country. We know that there is a better country somewhere, and we are willing to go to great lengths to get there. And we have the promise to guide us, a promise given by someone that we have faith in, that is, someone we trust.
We are also told that this better country is a city that has foundations. What does that mean, a city that has foundations? Well for one thing it sounds a lot more secure than living in tents like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob! A city with foundations can face whatever nature and fortune throws at it, even 90+mm of rain in two hours -- digging foundations means going down and anchoring what you are building in the solidity and strength of the earth. A city built on foundations will be like the house in Jesus' parable that is built on rock, so that wind can't blow it over or rain wash it away. It is a comforting destination to have.
So we are seeking a better country, that will be a homeland for us. It is a heavenly country and a city built on foundations. What else does the text tell us about the better country? That its architect and builder is God, that God has prepared it for us. So this city, this better country, is God's own country, prepared by God for God's people. Taking this together with our gospel reading we can see the outline of the better country more clearly than before -- it is God's Kingdom. For in our reading from Luke we hear that it is God's good pleasure to give us the kingdom. It is impossible to hear that promise in conjunction with the epistle's promises and descriptions of a better country without realising how they fit together. The Kingdom that John announced and Jesus preached is the better country that God has promised us. Indeed this is the better country which God has been promising his people since God first called Abraham and began the long process of choosing a people, a people of which we are part.
More than that, the gospel reading tells us that in this heavenly country we can have a unfailing treasure, subject neither to human fault or natural degradation. That seems a particularly wonderful thing in the atmosphere of constant change that surrounds most of us. Wherever we turn in this earthly city it seems that there is a construction site -- something being torn down here, a condo going up there. Just to pick one area close to home for many of us, the block or so of Bloor between the St George station and this church is in constant flux these days! But the promise of the heavenly country, the kingdom, the city with foundations, is of something quite different. That city is where we can store an unfailing treasure that will not wear out or decay, or be built over!
That treasure, that foundation, rests upon two things, the faithfulness of the One who promised and the faith and trust of the one who received that promise. It is God who promised and Abraham that received the promise in the Hebrew Bible, but Luke and the author of Hebrews show us that all who are Abraham's heirs by faith also receive the same promise, the promise of a better country, the promise of the kingdom. But how do we become Abraham's heirs? How do we make that promise ours? The simple answer is, by faith. That is, we become Abraham's heirs by having in our hearts and showing in our lives the same faith that Abraham and Sarah showed in 'pulling up stakes' and setting out from Haran to God alone knew where. (Our readings don't actually say very much about Sarah, but I think we can be sure that she was part of Abraham's decision to uproot the whole clan and follow God's call, and furthermore that the effort would likely not have succeded if she had not been 'on-side'. I think she deserves some recognition.)
If in faith we undertake the same sort of journey that Abraham and Sarah did, relying only upon God and God's promise for our support and help, then we are Abraham's heirs by faith. We don't necessarily do that the same way that Abraham and Sarah did -- for some the gospel call takes them far away from home and family, for others the call is to follow God's promise closer to home. Not all journeys are physical; some take place in the soul and not the body but are no less arduous for that. But what walking by faith shows, wherever we do so, is the love of God and neighbour that we see in our gospel reading: to lay up that unfailing treasure in our heavenly country we are called to give to others of our abundance here. In an age in which the culture around us puts such a high value on security and on amassing conspicuous possessions, what is a greater test of our faith than to share what we have with others? Almsgiving, often a Lenten discipline but one that is always in season, is offered here by Jesus as a concrete way to show our faith in God and God's promise to sustain and support us.
We must each listen to God's voice as Abraham and Sarah did, finding our own journey, our own path, to the better country. We must each heed that voice and learn how to respond to it with faith and trust, as Abraham and Sarah did. But we have yet another promise on that score: when we journey toward the better country in faith, God is not ashamed to be called our God. May God never be ashamed to be the God of this Redeemer community, your God and my God! Amen.