Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
People are on the move this summer. Folks from all around the world are traveling north, south, east and west – from the mountains to the coast. After several years of staying put, people are eager to visit family and friends, explore new places and generally get out and about. My family is no different. Phil and I just returned from Vancouver, British Columbia. For a few weeks we were travelers in a foreign land—sojourners for a time away. Now, I confess, I never really thought of Canada as much of a “foreign land”. But there are differences. My experience of our neighbors to the north is that folks in Vancouver are more relaxed and less rushed than those of us on the east coast of the United States. Now, there was lots of traffic, to be certain, but less honking. The city of Vancouver, filled with people, was actually quiet—no yelling, less swearing. By the end of our journey, I felt as though I was seeing my own beloved country through different eyes. I’m happy to be home, impressed with what I saw, and looking forward to other journeys in the future.
So, having arrived home from a foreign land, when I approached the lesson today from the Letter to the Hebrews, I found myself reading these words with new eyes: “By 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. By 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.” The reading concludes: “All of these (ancestors of ours) 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, for people who speak in this way make it clear that what they are seeking is a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”
To be clear, Abraham wasn’t a vacationer—he was a nomad. Seasonally on the move, he, and the people he led, didn’t claim citizenship to a country, they roamed from the Euphrates Valley of Ur to the Hill Country of Canaan. They had no permanent residence. The Bible makes it a point to tell us that they were tent dwellers.
Consider what it means to live in a tent. A tent is a temporary dwelling, that is never intended to be permanent. By their very nature tents imply transience—they are easy to pack up, pick up and go. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Abraham and his family lived as strangers and foreigners. And they did this even when they arrived in the promised land of Canaan. We learn from this reading that the choice to forego permanent foundations for a home wasn’t simply a practical decision made by a herding people, but spiritual as well—because their hearts were oriented not toward a home on this earth, but towards following the promises of God, wherever they might lead.
The author of Hebrews points out that the act of living as sojourners in a land not one’s own causes such people to look forward to what lies ahead rather than over their shoulders to what has been left behind. Tent-dwellers, are a forward-looking people. They are anticipatory by nature.
This is a theme we followers of Christ would do well to take to heart; because many of us are people who are deeply attached to our foundations—be they literally of stone and brick, or figuratively of the kind held by those bearing passports. If we find that we are accustomed to striding about as if we “own the place”, what would it mean for us—if, like Abraham, we chose to cultivate the art of living as sojourners in the land. What would change for us if we didn’t perceive ourselves as owners of a building or possessors of a land, so much as guests; as residents who are temporarily abroad rather than card-carrying citizens? How might such a stance change the way in which we view our world and the people in it? Might we be a bit more curious, even cautious—eager to learn rather than assume, willing to reach a bit outside of our comfort zones and see things from a different perspective? Perhaps we would be less arrogant and more appreciative; more gentle with our surroundings and less prone to taking them for granted. Perhaps we, like Abraham, might find ourselves looking forward—to what lies ahead rather than focused on the past and oriented toward what is behind.
I believe there is wisdom in such a stance. It hints at a willingness to give up comfort in the grand expectation of hope. It is an expression of faith. Frederick Buechner writes that “Faith is the word that describes the direction our feet start moving when we find that we are loved. Faith is stepping out into the unknown with nothing to guide us but a hand just beyond our grasp.”
The Chapel of the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, is built in angles reminiscent of a tent. It is a visual reminder in worship that we are intended to be, like Abraham, people of faith, ready to pick up, pack up and move at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. And, whereas we are a people with deep roots—going back to our great ancestor Abraham, like him, we are also a people whose true home, whose place of belonging, is not in this land, but, as the author of Hebrews tells us we are to be focused on journeying to a better country, that is, a heavenly one. As people of faith, we are travelers, even if our feet never leave their fair town of Dedham or the state of Massachusetts, we are to be about the business of making our way towards that place which our eyes have not seen, but our hearts have glimpsed. A place which calls us to treat this earth gently, as guests, as we make our way towards our true home in the presence of our God. Travel well. In Jesus’ name. Amen.