Text: Luke 12:32–40
Grace and peace be with you, my sisters and brothers, in the name of God in Christ Jesus, the light of the world. Amen.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him. (Gen. 12:1-4a)
That’s not the Old Testament text assigned for this morning, but the one leading up to it. It is our introduction to the characters of Abraham and Sarah, the prototypical pilgrims of faith. Among the first things we learn about this couple are that Abram is seventy-five, that Sarai is barren, and that God has promised them descendents more numerous than all the stars in the sky. Which I take to mean that we know from the get go they have an uphill battle in front of them.
I feel like I’m talking to a assembly full of Abrams and Sarais this morning.
Pilgrim people, that’s who we have sitting in our pews today. In case you’re not familiar with each other, let me introduce you:
Here at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square, a congregation of the ELCA that’s been worshipping God and serving the neighborhood for one hundred and seven years, you will find a small – but growing – collection of members and regular visitors. Not all are seventy-five, though plenty have an impressive number of years behind them. We have been told we are barren. That there is no hope for new life here. We have been told, in fact, to shut our doors and end our ministry. Despite that, we have set off into uncharted territories. We have broken camp with the familiar lands of our mothers and fathers and begun a pilgrimage into an unknown future in the hope that God will bless us, and through us the many communities to which we belong.
Also visiting with us this morning are volunteers with Goodsoil, the name of the coalition of individuals and organizations working toward the full inclusion of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the life and ministry of the church. The Goodsoil volunteers have been here in Chicago all week, organizing the voting members of the Churchwide Assembly with the hope of creating change within the denomination. As a rule they are not seventy-five, just the really feisty ones. As a movement they are in their thirties or forties, marked from the actions of full welcome pioneers like Jeff Johnson, Jim Lancaster and Joel Workin; Phyllis Zillhart, Ruth Frost and Jim DiLange; Anita Hill, Emily Eastwood and, more recently, Bradley Schmeling. They continue to be told, even in this last week, that their ministries are barren of God’s blessings; that the promises of life that are the inheritance of the gospel, are not available to all people on an equal basis. Despite that, they set off many years ago on a pilgrimage in search of a new homeland, a new church, where they would be counted alongside all the other stars of the sky as members of the nation of God’s household.
God’s promise aside, the circumstances surrounding Abram and Sara made their pilgrimage look like a bit of a fool’s errand. How would an old man and a barren woman settle a new land and become parents to a new nation? Heck, how were they to become parents to even a single child? That’s the problem that prompts the passage we heard this morning. God’s promise of new life for Abram and Sara hasn’t come quick enough, and they’re wondering if it will come at all. Impatient for change, Abram proposes to adopt one of his slaves so that he’ll have an heir to inherit his legacy. He wants some reassurance that he hasn’t been chasing after impossible aims, and he wants God to move on his timetable. He understands that his slave Eliezer isn’t the hoped for solution to all his troubles, but he wants something to show for all his wandering in the wilderness.
God is having none of it. “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir,” says the Creator. Then God repeats the promise made to Sara and Abram in the beginning of their journey, “look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendents be.” And Abraham believes God, and God counts that as righteousness, as faith.
That faith, the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1), is the heart of all our readings today. Looking backward from thousands of years later, Hebrews gives us the conclusion to Sarah and Abraham’s faith pilgrimage: “by faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old – and Sarah herself was barren – because he considered [God] faithful who had promised.” (Heb. 11:11)
Texts like this are difficult, they make me nervous, in part because they seem to imply that if we just believe hard enough in something God will make it happen – they tempt us to think of faith as a act of willpower instead of as a relationship with our Creator. They also make me anxious because I don’t know how to know if I have the kind of faith that’s being asked for. I mean, I think I have faith – but how do I know?
Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock,” (Lk 12:32) which might be some relief for my insecurity but even more than that appears to be a clue to how the relief is obtained. These verses come directly after Jesus’ instruction to “consider the raven” and “the lilies” (Lk 12:24-28) who are fed and clothed out of God’s loving mercy and care.
But don’t we all experience that it takes more than someone telling us to “be not afraid” in order for us to be comforted? In the midst of our anxieties, our disappointments and concerns, being told not to worry isn’t actually all that helpful. So Christ pairs the command “do not be afraid” with a method for achieving that calm, “sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out…for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Lk 12:33-34)
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. It took me a couple of times reading that verse before I realized why it sounded odd to me. It sounds backward. Shouldn’t it be: for where your heart is, there your treasure will be also? Isn’t that how we, for the most part, order our households – giving of our time and our treasures to the things we already know, the sensible choices?
Looking back at Abraham and Sarah we learn in the 13th chapter of Genesis that they were “very rich in livestock, silver and gold.” (Gen. 13:2) How odd it must have been for that family to break camp in the place where they were comfortable, and wealthy, and to set off into the unknown. How bizarre it must have seemed to those they left behind to watch as Abraham and Sarah wasted their wealth in service of a pilgrimage of faith instead of staying put and investing in the safe pleasures of what they had always known.
But faith in God led Abraham and Sarah to invest not only their wealth, but their lives, in service to a journey the end of which they could not even begin to imagine. Each step along the way that decision deepened their faith, giving them the courage needed to go on, to press through the next challenge.
I imagine it’s like that for each of us. The parallel between this congregation, between the goodsoil movement, and Abraham’s journey of faith is fairly clear: we have set out on a journey, we have invested our time, our lives, our money, our futures in projects that have taken us to unexpected places and at each step along the way we have been offered opportunities to trust in the mercy and providence of God and we have found that God does not disappoint. Faith in God leads us into places we would not have chosen to go, but having been there we are gifted with unexpected blessings. But I know this is true for u
s not only as communities, but individually as well.
I think of my sister, Tara. Adopted from Thailand at the age of six, my parents and I had no idea the journey we were in for when we brought Tara into our family. First there were the learning disabilities, then the years where she ran away. The different diagnoses: mild developmental delay, persistent mental illness. Then the days she was gone and we didn’t know if she would return. We couldn’t have known when we set out to become a family together what the cost of loving each other would be and had we, I honestly think we would not have chosen that course. But trust in God at the outset gave us strength for the next step, which gave us strength for the step after that. Knowing many of you as I do, I know that you could tell similar stories.
The pilgrimage of faith is a discipline not of putting your heart where your treasure is – that would always keep us standing still – it is putting your treasure somewhere out there, and teaching your heart to follow. It is putting your time, your talents, your treasures out there into the future – the land of things hoped for, things not yet seen, which shapes us into the kind of people who can bear the burdens and challenges of the pilgrimage yet to come.
We are an assembly full of Sarahs and Abrahams. We have set off on our separate journeys, which are really part of the larger journey taken together by all of God’s people looking for a new home, a home large enough for all of us, large enough to hold a fellowship of believers numbering more than all the stars in the sky. In the midst of our long and ongoing pilgrimages, our company together is a blessing and a foretaste of the homecoming God has planned for us upon our arrival. In the meantime, we have been given to each other as points of light, as constellations, families of stars, pointing the way toward home.