Sunday, August 12, 2007

Ready to Ramble

Formed by the Word: Faithful Nomads
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40; Genesis 15:1-6

(Click on "play" to hear the audio)


Albert E. Brumley was a prolific song-writer,
mostly of shaped-note southern Gospel songs.
His most famous was “I’ll fly away,”
the most-recorded Gospel song in history.
He also wrote the one we just sang,
“This world is not my home.”

Singing that song, if you’re one who likes old-style southern Gospel,
probably got your toes tapping,
maybe sparked memories of hearing it on the radio or record player.
Anyone want to admit to some toe-tapping or nostalgia?
Singing it might also, if you’re someone who pays close attention
to the theology of what you sing,
might have made you squirm in your seat.
Anyone want to admit to some seat-squirming?

This song, like lots of old Gospel songs,
seems overly obsessed with the life hereafter.
It seems to assume this life has no value of its own,
except as a short walkway we have to pass through,
on our way to the open doors of heaven,
where real life begins.

Albert E. Brumley was born in 1905, to dirt-poor sharecroppers
on a cotton farm in Oklahoma.
He lived through the Dust Bowl and the Depression.
You could appreciate why he might have come to the conclusion,
that this world was not his real home.
Actually, Brumley, and many other Gospel song writers,
lived a full and joyful life,
and some of them, in time, enjoyed financial success.
But they kept singing about heaven and the life hereafter.
And made only passing references to the goodness of this life.

Of course, if we want to disparage songs like these,
we might also have to disparage some scripture,
like what we read today.
Take a look at Hebrews 11.
It says quite plainly, it was the faith of Abraham,
that caused him to look at himself as a foreigner in this life.
Abraham and Sarah, and other biblical heroes of faith,
according to our scripture,
“confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth.”
They looked forward to, and longed for,
“the city...whose architect and builder is God.” (v. 10)
“They desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (v. 16)
But all of these died in faith without having received the promises.
These are the heroes of our faith.
The exemplary ones, those we model our lives after.

The Old Testament reading in Genesis 15,
emphasizes that Abraham’s hope is not in the here and now,
but in the long-distant future.
God took him outside and showed him the stars.
Your descendants will be like the stars, God says.
You won’t actually see your reward in this life,
but it will come, and it will be great.

And in the Gospel reading from Luke,
Jesus is also pointing his disciples toward the unknown future.
Yes, God is giving you a kingdom, he says.
But don’t put your hope in it happening right now.
In fact, shed yourself of anything that encumbers you,
that makes you want to cling to this life.
Luke 12:33—
“Sell your possessions, and give alms.
Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out,
an unfailing treasure in heaven,
where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
He says, Don’t be concerned about right now.
Get ready for what’s coming next.
V. 35—
“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit;
be like those who are waiting for their master
to return from the wedding banquet.”

Looks like Albert Brumley is in good company,
when he sings about putting his hope in heaven.

But then, so are those of us who question that kind of theology.
Because the scriptures reveal a real tension here, between
living in and loving this world,
and putting our hope in the next one.

Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles in Babylon,
who were literally in a foreign land.
And he told them not to act like foreigners.
Love the place where you live.
Settle down. Build houses. Put down roots.
Get married. Have children. Have grandchildren.
Jeremiah 29:7—
“seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile,
and pray to the Lord on its behalf,
for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

There are a multitude of scriptures
praising the beauty and the inherent worth of this world,
this earth and its mortal peoples
and its plants and creatures.
God so loved this world...this world...
that he made the ultimate sacrifice for it.
He sent his Son.
Surely, if God saw this world as having no value at all,
except as a disposable launching pad,
to get us up there to heaven with him,
would God have sent his beloved and only Son
to save and redeem and restore this world that he loved?

Without a doubt, if we want to be faithful to God,
we must love this world that God loves.
We must fully embrace it. Live in it gratefully and abundantly.
We must even cling to this life as the wonderful and beautiful
and worthy gift of God that it is.

And we must see ourselves as strangers and foreigners.
We must recognize our calling as sojourners.

Can we do both?
Can we sing with Albert Brumley,
“This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through”?
And at the same time sing with hymn-writer Maltbie Babcock,
“This is my Father’s world, I rest me in the thought”?
Babcock goes on to say,
“This is my Father’s world, the battle is not done,
Jesus who died shall be satisfied,
and earth and heaven be one.”

Are these two ideas compatible?
That we are only passing through earth to get to heaven?
And that earth and heaven will someday be one?
Can they both be true?

I think, if we read Hebrews 11 well, the answer is yes.
Take a look again at this chapter.
This is a chapter on faith.
It’s a chapter on the subject of where we place our trust.
And it uses Abraham as the model.
Abraham is amazing.
By faith, Hebrews 11:8 says,
“Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place...
not knowing where he was going.”
You probably know the story.
God—completely unknown up till now—
comes to Abraham, son of Terah,
deeply rooted in land and family, and says,
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house
to the land that I will show you.”
And Abraham dutifully obeyed,
without knowing or seeing where this was heading.
Abraham trusted God,
and God credited that to him as righteousness.

Do you think that Abraham loved his family, loved his land?
I’m sure he did.
But he also learned, over time,
to love the God who called him,
and to trust in God’s promises.
Being a stranger and foreigner,
doesn’t mean you don’t love and embrace the land you live in.
Look at the thousands of immigrants who are neighbors of ours.
They love this place.
They call it their home.
But do they still feel like foreigners?
Most of them do.
It’s possible to love this world dearly,
and to live in it with light attachments.
And what makes the difference is where we put our trust.
Some say they love God.
But live as though they trust the world.
Better we should love this world,
and save our ultimate trust, for God.

A couple years ago, I preached the funeral meditation for Ruth Shenk,
Steve’s mother, Karen’s mother-in-law.
And I reflected on how deeply rooted she was,
as a 5th-generation resident of Fulton County, Ohio.
Archbold, Wauseon, Pettisville—
this rural area was where both her parents were born,
and her grandparents.
And all eight of her great-grandparents
are buried there in Fulton County.
Ruth, however, lived her life as a sojourner,
one who roamed and rambled to wherever God was calling.
To Virginia, to Indiana,
and to various places in Japan for 37 years.
But wherever she was, she was not far from her roots.
She had a sense of home.
Because as deeply as she loved her home community in Ohio,
she put her abiding trust in the God who called her,
the God who promised to be with her wherever she went.
She lived both lightly, and deeply, on this earth.

This, I believe, is what the writer of Hebrews is praising about Abraham,
and the other heroes of faith.
They lived deeply, but lightly, on this earth.
They loved their land and their people.
But they trusted God to lead them to new places.
And it was a trust that did not depend on
seeing with their own eyes what they were to receive.
They trusted God.

If God is calling us,
there’s no need to know everything before we step out.
We only need to trust the one who is calling us.

A newborn baby knows very little.
Almost nothing.
But it’s enough.
She needs to know how to cry,
how to grasp,
how to suck,
how to swallow.
Everything she needs beyond that, is provided by the parent.

When a toddler reaches the age of two,
he knows more, but still not much.
He knows how to walk,
how to feed himself,
how to stay close to his parent.
But he has no concept of what his dad or mom do
when they leave for work in the morning.
He has no idea how it is when he gets buckled into a carseat,
that the car goes wherever they need to go.
He doesn’t know where his food comes from.
He doesn’t have a clue what adults talk about.
And yet, in a healthy family system,
this little boy knows everything he needs to know.
He knows who to trust.
He trusts his parent,
who loves him, cares for him,
and will teach him more when he is ready.

We followers of Jesus are a little like these toddlers.
We know a fair bit.
But not nearly everything there is to know.
But when the one who loves us and cares for us calls us,
we know enough to say yes.
We trust the one who calls us.
That’s all that’s really necessary.

I don’t know why there is so much suffering in the world.
I don’t know why people die every day,
at the hands of soldiers and suicide bombers,
or by collapsing mines and bridges,
or by storm or starvation or preventable disease.
I don’t know what God is up to,
when the nations of the world are in an uproar.
I don’t know what God is doing in the church,
when disagreements divide and separate the body of Christ.

But for today, for what God is asking me to do,
I know enough.
I know in whom I have put my trust.
I know whom I have believed,
and am persuaded that he is able to keep that
which I’ve committed unto him, against that day.

Does this guarantee we will be rewarded for our trust?
That we will get what we have coming,
as a prize for trusting God.
Nope. Not according to the writer of Hebrews 11, in verse 13.
In the verses preceding, he lists a bunch of heroes of faith.
Then he writes,
“All of these—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.”
None of them got their reward in this life.
None of them were proven right in the eyes of others.
They had only the satisfaction of being faithful to the
One who had called them.

But that’s not a problem, if we don’t stake a claim on this world,
and live like we own it.
We should all be able to say, with confidence and with gratitude,
“This is not my life. This is not my church.
Where I happen to live is not my land.
The business I own is not my business.
The hours I put in on the job, is not my work.
The material goods I have access to are not my wealth.
The gifts I have been given are not my resources.
All that I am. All that I have.
All that I ever will have in my possession,
belongs to God, in whom I trust completely.”

That is the attitude. That is the perspective.
That is the posture that allows us to be sojourners,
to roam and ramble at God’s bidding.

Regardless your particular theology of the afterlife,
whether you believe we go up to heaven,
or heaven comes to us...
Unless we can sing with Albert E. Brumley,
“This world is not my home.”
We will not be ready to ramble,
when God comes to us and says, “Go.”
Go to the place I will show you.
But when we put our trust in the God who calls us,
then we will be able to say “yes” to God’s call,
even when that call is to pass through
deep waters, or rivers of sorrow, or fiery trials.
Then we will have a firm foundation,
in this world, and in the world to come.

Let’s sing together, hymn #567.

—Phil Kniss, August 12, 2007

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