Sunday, August 11, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Can you think of a time in your life when you felt really, really homesick? You know that feeling of longing deep in the pit of your guts? It’s that longing to be home, the longing to be someplace where you feel like you belong.
I don’t know about you all, but that’s definitely something I’ve felt at different times in my life. For many years, I was basically a nomad, just moving around from place to place. And there were a lot of moments in there where I felt sad: missing home, missing the people that I know.
But I think that by far the most homesick I have ever felt was the first night that I spent in country, back when I was in the Peace Corps. I had committed myself to spending just over two years in a country I had never been to before, where I didn’t know anyone. And on top of that, I knew that, for at least the first six months, I would not even be allowed to go home to visit – we had to stay for the first three months of training, and then for the first three months of getting to know our communities after that. When we flew into the Dominican Republic that morning, I wasn’t thinking about all that; everything seemed so exciting and new and the country was so beautiful.
But as I lay in bed that night, listening to all the unfamiliar sounds of my new country, I could not get to sleep. I was overwhelmed with a feeling of sadness, missing all the friends and family that I had left back home, and knowing that it would be many months before I would get to see them again. I could hardly bear to think about it without crying. But I also felt overwhelmed thinking about what was to come. I was so nervous and scared and unsure about being on my own in a different country that I could hardly bear to think about that either!
So instead of thinking about what was ahead of me or about what was behind, I tossed and turned that night trying to remember the plots of my favorite movies in as much detail as I possibly could. Heh, instead of counting sheep, I think I finally dozed off somewhere in the middle of remembering the plot of When Harry Met Sally.
In our readings this morning from Genesis and Hebrews, we find Abraham and Sarah in sort of a similar, in between kind of moment. They are living the moment in between the old lives they walked away from, and the future that God has promised them. Sarah and Abraham had left behind the land of their ancestors and moved into the land of Canaan. This was the land that God had promised to give to their descendants. I can easily imagine that they would have felt some kind of homesickness for the land that their families had lived in for generations. And I know that they felt uncertainty and anxiety about the future – God had made grand promises about giving all this land to Abraham and Sarah’s descendents, but, of course, there was just one problem with that: Abraham and Sarah didn’t have any descendents! They had never been able to have kids, and now they were too old.
But by faith, they set out to go where God had called them to go. And I find this passage from Hebrews striking:
They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking 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 desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.
However Sarah and Abraham may have felt about the homes that they had left, the writer of Hebrews makes it clear: the real homesickness that they felt was about the place that they were going. They felt that same, familiar homesick longing, but it wasn’t a longing for the place they had left behind. Instead, they longed for the place that God had promised to them, the “city that God had prepared,” as the author of Hebrews phrases it.
They put all their hopes and all their longing into the future that God had promised. And this shift allows Abraham and Sarah to hope in a way they had never hoped before. God opens up to them a world of possibilities that they thought were impossible. I mean, Sarah was in her 90s, and Abraham was over 100, which even by biblical standards was old! In fact, the writer of Hebrews describes Sarah as “barren” and Abraham as “a person as good as dead”! They had given up hope of having children and a family of their own to carry on their family line.
And God doesn’t stop with just promising them a child. God extravagantly promises them descendents, “as many as the stars of heaven and as innumerable as grains of sand on the seashore.” And sure enough, just a few chapters later in Genesis, Sarah becomes pregnant and gives birth to their firstborn child, Isaac.
The birth of Isaac was only the beginning of all that God promised– but it was more than enough for Sarah and Abraham. They may not have even lived long enough to get to see the birth of their grandsons Jacob and Esau. They “died in faith, without having received the promises,” as the author of Hebrews writes, “but from a distance, they saw and greeted them.” Sarah and Abraham lived and died in that moment of in-between: the “already” and “not-yet” of God’s promises.
As a church, we too live in that same moment. We have seen and given thanks for the good things that God has done in the past – and we live in hope for the future that God has promised: the coming kingdom of God. The ancestors in the faith that we have known likewise “died in faith, without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.”
And our hopefulness for the future calls us to that same kind of homesickness, that same kind of longing, that Abraham and Sarah felt – longing not for the things that have come before, but longing for the future hope that God has promised. In fact, we are called not so much to be homesick, but rather to be, “kingdomsick,” if you will. Kind of a cheesy way to say it, but it’s true. And it’s easier said than done. We remember how good things were before: before the culture at large had moved on from the church. We remember the good old days when there were dozens of kids in Sunday School and we didn’t have to worry so much about meeting the budget, back when it wasn’t just the same small pool of people being called on to volunteer over and over again. You might say we remember well the miraculous birth of Isaac – but it’s easy for us to get stuck there, remembering, looking back and praying for God to do again what God did before.
But God is inviting us to look forward. God is calling us to be hopeful rather than nostalgic – to be kingdomsick instead of homesick. As Luke writes in our gospel reading, it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. And it’s coming. Even now, God is getting it ready – the kingdom where all will live in peace and plenty, where all people will be welcome, where mourning and crying and pain will be no more. But Jesus exhorts us to be ready, to live with watchfulness and with longing for that kingdom to come. And just like Abraham and Sara, we live with the expectation that we will see the beginning of that promise in our own lives.
Because the kingdom we wait for isn’t some pie-in-the-sky, far distant heaven that only happens after we die. That is not the kind of kingdom we pray for. We pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth.” On earth we pray for the kingdom to come. God’s promises are about what happens here, in the midst of God’s beloved creation. We are waiting and watching and longing for the inbreaking of the kingdom here and now.
And we even get to be part of making it happen. We help build God’s kingdom here on earth by acting like God’s kingdom people now. For example, last week and over the weekend, the Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA met in Milwaukee. And they made some bold decisions on behalf of the whole chuch. They spoke out against evils like racism and sexism, and they stood up for the rights and dignity of our immigrant siblings from around the world. Even though it isn’t clear yet how exactly all this will play out in the life of the church, it is still an important affirmation that all people are precious in God’s sight, no matter who they are or where they come from, and that they all have a place in God’s kingdom.
It may seem sometimes like that kingdom is impossibly far off. It’s easier for us to be homesick for the things of the past, that seem nearer to us, than to risk being kingdomsick for the future. But God has made extravagant promises to us – promises we know we can trust, because God is a God of hopefulness and “yes!” and possibility. And even though we may well die in the faith, without having received the promises, like Sarah and Abraham, we have seen enough – even from a distance – to know that the best is yet to come.