8/11/19 - From a Distance They Saw - Hebrews 11:1-16

From a Distance They Saw

Hebrews 11:1-16

August 11, 2019

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff   


Do you ever feel stuck?  

As soon as I ask that question I hear the voice of the professor of the one Pastoral Counseling class I ever took who insisted that the only four human emotions are mad, sad, glad and scared.  He claimed the other words we use are just attempts to avoid those four feelings. And while I think she had a point, lately I've been aware of a feeling deep inside me that is some uncomfortable combination of mad, sad and scared, a feeling that I can best describe as stuck.  

Do you know that feeling?  Sometimes it arises in response to situations when we know that we're caught in a behavior, in a relationship, in a life situation that you know is not good for us, maybe even one that could kill us sooner or later, and yet we feel unable to do anything to change the situation.  There have been times in my life when I've been very aware of that personal sense of stuckness, but for me right now, the looming sense of stuckness I feel comes from our national situation.  

It used to be that when I heard about a mass shooting I felt shocked and horrified.  I remember where I was twenty years ago when the shooting at Columbine High School took place--I walked into a convenience store that had a television hung high on the wall, behind the cashier.  I was surprised when I walked into the store that everyone was still and silent, staring at the television. What a shock to see those images of high school students being evacuated from their high school by a SWAT team.  And I was shocked again when there was a shooting in a church, and when there was a shooting in an elementary school, and when there was a shooting at a music festival. And then there came the day when I heard about another shooting and I wasn't shocked.  And last weekend there were two mass shootings and I wasn't shocked. I knew exactly how it would go--the vigils, the facebook posts, the "thoughts and prayers" and then the silence.  

I used to feel shocked at stories of immigrant parents arrested at their workplace and deported, leaving their families, their children behind in this country.  I used to feel shocked at the sight of arctic ice melting into massive rivers. But now those things don't shock me. I have a different feeling when I hear about or see those things--I feel a sense of stuckness, like our whole country has stumbled into something deep and sticky and we're caught, unable to get out.  Do you know that feeling?  

What's the faithful response to stuckness?  What do we have to offer here on a Sunday morning to people (like me, like you) who walk in here with the feeling that there is no way out of the mess we've gotten ourselves in?

 So, there's nothing like a job interview to focus the mind.  Last month, I drove out to interview with a church in Massachusetts.  A member of the search team asked me a question about how I address social issues in the context of worship--and as soon as she did the "DANGER!" light started to flash in my mind.  I didn't have a good sense of where this congregation stood politically and I knew that whatever I said would be too much for some people and too little for others. So I started in on a long, rambling, vague response about how we need to speak to the issues of the day but we shouldn't just repeat the same complaints and worries that we hear outside of church.  The committee pressed me on this--what, specifically, does the church have to offer that is different from what we get from the rest of the world? "Hope," I found myself saying, "We need to proclaim every single Sunday that there's hope for the world and for our lives."  

This seemed to be enough of a response for the committee who moved on to the next question at that point, but on my long drive home that night, I kept thinking about my answer.  Can churches really talk hope without minimizing the problems that we're facing as individuals and as a nation? I have no interest in telling people that there's nothing to worry about because God has a plan and I'm certainly not going to suggest that we have to endure the sufferings of this world as a test to prove ourselves deserving of God's sweet reward in the by-and-by.  The world needs Christians to do more than "keep on the sunnyside".  

The passage we read a few minutes ago from Hebrews has been a helpful conversation partner as I've continued this conversation in my head.  At the start of the passage, the writer connects faith and hope saying, "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen."  In other words, faith connects the world as it should be or could be, with the world we live in, here and now. Without that connection, hope is just wishful thinking, day dreaming, playing "what-if", closing our eyes and blowing out a candle while saying in our head, "I want to win the lottery!".  But if we have faith in God, which is to say, if we trust that there is power at work in the world that is greater than our own, then that other world that we pray for and yearn for takes on a kind of substance because it is based not just on our wishes but on God's promises.

The writer of Hebrews offers as an illustration the story of Abraham who was called by God to leave his homeland and journey to a new land where God promised his descendants would thrive.  Abraham had no concrete evidence that this was actually going to happen--he was propelled in his journey by his faith in God's promise. That doesn't mean that his journey was direct--in fact, it included all kinds of turns and detours.  And it doesn't mean that Abraham never doubted or got impatient or frustrated. He did. But throughout the story of Abraham there is a kind of tug, a pull in the direction of the Promised Land.  

That pull is for me just about the best description of the power of faith that scripture has to offer.  And what's more, that pull is the opposite of being stuck. The author of Hebrews writes that people with faith, "desire a better country".  I have held onto that image this image this week as I feel despair welling up within me in response to more mass shootings, more children of immigrants separated from their parents, more people dying of drug overdoses.  Despair is the voice that says, well this is where we live now, we'd better figure out how to get used to it. But faith reminds me that this world is not where I'm going to settle. This is not my home. My God has promised me, has promised all of us, a world where lions lie down with lambs and no one is hurt or destroyed.

It is powerful to get together with all of you and to say this, to remember this.  But it is easy to forget it once we walk out these doors. It's not enough to know God's promises--we have to embody them, take them to heart.  Our country has started to establish rituals of despair in response to gun violence. We need to even more powerful rituals of hope. When the August Worship Design team met this past Monday, we talked about this.  Our conversation reminded me of a part of the Jewish Friday night Shabbat service when the whole congregation stands up and faces East and sings a hymn called "Lecha Dodi" to welcome the coming Sabbath. "Come my beloved," they sing, "Come, my friend."  Curtis immediately responded, "We should do something like that!" He pointed out that in our reading from Hebrews it says that people saw God's promise from a long way off and greeted it. I love that image and I have been thinking of how to embody it every morning.  How can I tie that string between God's promises and the world that I find myself in today? Maybe I can name that promise and find a way to stand and greet it every morning, even though it feels a long way off.

Shall we do that together?  What words would you put to the promises of God?  Let's stand and greet those things and welcome them in--to our lives, to our church, to our neighborhood, and to this whole hurting world.