Just Passing Through

By Rev. Debbie Ingram

[August 11, 2013; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16.]

Debbie Ingram

Debbie Ingram

[Theme:  When we move, going from place to place, home to home, we feel unsettled and insecure – but Abraham and other people of faith were comfortable in that transitory process because of their great faith in the home God prepared for them.

Purpose:  Pass through the discomfort of being unsettled and not yet having the things you hope for, with the faith that God is preparing just the right place for you.]

Last year an awful lot of Americans moved their home from one location to another.  According, to the census bureau, thirty-six and a half million Americans moved, making the rate of moving twelve percent of the population. This is an increase of almost three percent 3% compared to the year before.

The Mayflower Moving Company reports that the average American moves six times in his or her adult life.  At the present time, those most likely to move are in the eighteen  to thirty-four age bracket – also known as millennials. Nearly half of these millennials said they will consider a move in the next year.  The most common reason for those considering moving in the next year is to get a new or better home or neighborhood – a consideration that is closely tied to economic and job opportunities.

 As a result, North Dakota, whose economy has grown 13.4% over the last year, is the fastest growing U.S. state, and Texas is second.  Oregon is third, Washington fourth, and Minnesota is fifth.  All have economies that are growing, and unemployment rates that are dropping.  While North Dakota is the only state with double-digit growth, the Texas economy grew 4.8% and the other top five grew over 3% each.  This is compared to Vermont’s economic growth of 1.2%.  Where are people moving from?  The rust belt, primarily – Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin lead the way in losing residents to other states.

We may think this is a recent trend, but it would be accurate to describe even the Eisenhower Era of the 1950’s as a “restless” time in American History.  During those years, people also moved from the northeast to the south and west – California’s population grew by 49% during that decade, while Florida’s grew by 79%.  Data shows that Americans moved from rural areas to cities, and then from cities to suburbs.  By 1960, a third of our country’s population lived in suburbs, in fact.

Worldwide movement has been going on for many decades.  In 1850, when records of immigrants to the U.S. were first kept, 9.7% of the total population was immigrants.  Between 1860 and 1920, our immigrant population fluctuated between 13% and 15%, reaching its peak in 1890 with a huge influx of European immigrants.  Between 1930 and 1970 immigration declined greatly, to a low of 4.7%, but since 1970 it has been going up again.  At present, 12.5% of our U.S. population is made up of immigrants.  Where are they from?  The largest single group by far is Mexican-born, followed by the Philippines, India, and China.

All of these numbers point to the fact that at any given time, a significant number of people in our country are moving from place to place, seeking a new job, a new home, a better way of life, the fulfillment of a promise for themselves and their children.  Even if you are not personally one of those people who has been moving physically, geographically, you can no doubt sense in the world today a general pattern of movement, borne out by these statistics.  This movement, this transitioning of people, can be unsettling, disturbing, and anxiety-producing.  Why are we not, as human beings, more grounded, more centered, and more stable?

 Our scripture passage for today addresses this question in an interesting way, using as an example one of the great patriarchs of the bible, Abraham.  Now Abraham, you will remember, was a key figure in the book of Genesis – after Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel, after Noah and the Tower of Babel, came Abraham, whom God selected to be the Father of God’s chosen people.  God’s call came to Abraham when he was living in a place called Haran, which is in modern-day Syria.  God’s call to Abraham from the very beginning was, “Leave your country, your people, and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.”

This is why, in our scripture passage for today, the author of Hebrews says in verse eight, that Abraham obeyed this call, “And set out, not knowing where he was going.”  Wow!  To me, that’s pretty startling stuff – that God’s first command to this fellow whom God’s picked to be the patriarch of a new religion, the father of a nation, is leave the place that you call home, where you feel stable and self-assured, and go wandering off to parts unknown.  God’s command, basically, is become as unsettled and discombobulated as you can possibly be, and then wait for my directions.

I don’t know about you, but that seems like an awfully unfair way to treat someone who’s supposed to be special and important in your plan, if you’re God.  God doesn’t say, “You’re going to play a key role in my plan for humankind, so here, let me give you a stable place to live and a settled way of life to build your confidence and prepare you for the task ahead” – no, quite the contrary.  God instead says, “Here, Abraham, you’re very important to me, so leave everything you hold dear behind to wander off by a route you won’t know beforehand, so that you’ll always feel like a stranger in a strange land.”

That’s exactly what happens to poor Abraham – he gets to the land that God promises him, Canaan, in modern-day Israel, but Abraham never lives a settled, secure life.  He, his son and grandson live in tents on foreign soil, never feeling truly at home once and for all.

Why was this?  Because God told them to keep looking ahead, to look forward in the future to a different kind of home, a city with foundations, in other words a place that would have permanence, which was designed and built by God’s very self.  But this city, this city was never in this world a real place – it was always a heavenly construction, a future-world, a promised land different from rocks and ridges, sod and grass, and instead a location in the presence of God’s very self.

As verse thirteen tells us, “All these people were still living by faith when they died.”  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob never really got to see the lands God told them about – lands that would also be filled with Abraham’s descendants, which was amazingly improbable, given that his wife had been infertile all her life and Abraham was 100 years old at that point.  As the passage says, those lands, filled with God’s chosen people – those they only saw and greeted from a distance.  Instead they always realized – and this is critical – they always realized and admitted that they were just passing through the life they had in the Middle East.  In a very real sense, this meant that Abraham and his descendants could say they were strangers and foreigners on earth, in search of a homeland of their own, aware that they just didn’t fit in this world.

If they wanted just any old place to have stability and security, the passage tells us, they could have simply returned to the places where they came from.  But they didn’t want just any old place to live – Abraham and his descendants wanted “A better country, that is, a heavenly one.”  They wanted that place in the presence of God.

How many of us would be able to carry out that call of Abraham?  Would we be okay with setting out the door in tents, wandering around without knowing where we were going?  I know there are some people who like to do that temporarily – they take road trips over the summer, or when they first retire, and they like the spontaneity and the freedom of just going where the road takes them, without keeping a strict schedule or making hotel reservations.  I must confess even that would drive me crazy – when I take a vacation, every day is planned at least to some extent, with reservations made and tickets to attractions arranged in advance.  If I’m that way on vacation, imagine how much I like my routine at home.  I am thoroughly domesticated, taking great comfort in coming back to my house with everything in its place, familiar, unchanging.

Feeling at sixes and sevens, at loose ends with regard to what I will find when I return, or at what the future holds when I look down the road – I am not particularly pleased with this scenario.  Perhaps you’re the same way.  Yet in a very real sense this is what we are asked to do as people of faith.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Faith is what our ancestors received approval for.  Faith is what makes us understand that God created what is seen from what was not seen.  According to this famous definition, faith is what enables people like Abraham to wander around, not seeing where he’s going, hoping for something that he hasn’t experienced – not because he’s stupid, or blindly obedient, but because he trusts God.  Hopes for it; hasn’t seen it yet, but believes, knows in his heart, that if God says it’s coming, then it’s really coming.

It’s this faith that makes someone like Abraham feel more at home in this limbo, in this anticipatory stage, than he is in the actual location where he finds himself at the moment.  Indeed, he feels like a stranger, a foreigner, on the stable spot where he’s standing, for it’s the promise of the future, the heavenly realm in the presence of God, where people of faith like Abraham feel at home.

This is counter-intuitive, this is paradoxical – but the evidence that a life of faith entails just this sort of understanding is overwhelming.  Indeed, this whole section of the book of Hebrews, written by some early missionary, but whom exactly no one is sure – nonetheless, this whole section is full of examples of human beings, people like you and me, who instead of feeling unsettled and anxious, insecure and uncomfortable when relying on God without actually knowing exactly what would happen, hit their stride and find their comfort level with the almighty maker of the universe.  This is what a life of faith is all about – embracing that unsettled feeling, accepting that lack of ability to see, being okay with not knowing where we’re going.  In fact, feeling more comfortable like that, than in living a stodgy, predictable, boring existence.

I don’t know about you, but that feels like a tall order to me. It’s a good thing we get lots of chances to practice, isn’t it?  You’ve all just gotten the chance to practice your faith collectively, while waiting almost three years to find a new pastor.  I’m sure many times it seemed like you were wandering around, not knowing where you were going.  I’m sure many times it seemed like you couldn’t see what lay ahead.  I’m sure many times it made you anxious, unsettled, uncomfortable.  Yet I think you helped each other through it, and mostly, you believed it would happen – that a new pastor would be found, one that God led to you.

We get abundant chances to practice individually don’t we?  One of my colleagues in the community organizing a job I do outside of serving here in Hinesburg is a man named John Rutsindintwarane – not surprisingly, we all call him John R, or even John Rwanda, because he heads up an organization like the one I run in Vermont, in Rwanda.  You may remember that Rwanda, a country in Central Africa, was wracked by devastating civil war in the 1990’s.  the struggle between two ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis, resulted in the genocide of over 20% of the country’s population – between 500,000 and a million Tutsis were murdered in a period of 100 days.

Peace in this country is still tenuous, and the war created even more harsh conditions for an already severely impoverished nation.  Rebuilding was a slow process in the early 2000’s, mostly undertaken by outside sources like the United Nations, non-government organizations, and big donors like the World Bank.

John R, my colleague, a cheerful, soft-spoken man born in Rwanda, had the opportunity to visit the U.S. on a scholarship for graduate work.  While in the U.S. he encountered the model of organizing that I teach people here in Vermont – to mobilize people of faith by engaging with one another to choose the most pressing issues in an area, and then to use a combination of research and public pressure on officials and decision-makers to create systemic change, all the while keeping our faith values of justice and compassion center stage.

John held a series of workshops about this methodology in Rwanda in 2007 and was invited to set up shop in Mumeya, a small area in the southeastern part of Rwanda near the Tanzanian border.  When the villagers first started meeting on straw mats under a tree, John told them that he had no money to offer them, but he was willing to give them his brain and his heart.  When they started out, John shares that he had no idea where they would be going with this model and whether they could get anything done that would truly help these people – but he had faith that they could, and he had seen it work well in desperate places all across America.

Villagers from five congregations – Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist, Seventh Day Adventist, and Anglican – received the training from John, and they began holding conversations one-on-one with community members across Mumeya.  Soon the top priority emerged – a health clinic.  As one resident put it, “We have asked the Rwandan government to build a clinic in this area since 1973 . . .   When we get sick, we break immigration rules and cross the river bordering Tanzania at night.  An average of fifteen expectant mothers and children die per year on the way to hospital.”

With John’s guidance, hundreds of Rwandans came together on this project. The residents themselves decided they could build the health center’s foundation. Those trained in stone-masonry trained others, and over 400 women and men together built the foundation.  They kept track of how many dollars worth of in-kind labor they donated, then met with public officials – unprecedented in Rwanda.  The mayor pledged $20,000 for construction of the health center, and promised to build a good road to link it to other areas.  The villagers held officials accountable to their promises.  Jobs have been added, as the government hired some as construction workers, and others have been trained as health care workers.

Now the health center is open, and it serves over 30,000 people a year – but the residents have not stopped there.  They are pressing for clean, piped water and electricity for the region, as well as the building of a community center.  Officials admire them and work with them as allies to meet the area’s needs.

John admits there were days when he had no idea what would happen, and when he doubted that demands that might be reasonable; but seemed like asking for the sun, the moon and the stars in their context would ever be met.  He, and the dozens of people of faith who worked alongside him, kept going, even in the uncertainty, and they inspired the hundreds of community members who together made this incredible change happen.

Friends, how fortunate we are to have lives with far different problems than these folks – yet our challenges, too, are real, and difficult to face.  Whether we must cope with strife-filled relationships, or a lack of financial resources, with life-threatening illnesses or situations in which we are abused or oppressed, we also have our share of circumstances which keep us unsettled, insecure, unstable.  This is where our faith comes in.  Faith like that of John R, faith like that of Abraham, the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.  The faith that makes us trust in God’s leading toward a better place, a heavenly home, a location in God’s presence – a location that we work toward, even in our uncertainty.  Hold fast to that faith, friends, and realize that you’re just passing through whatever land of discomfort you’re in now, on your way to the promised land of God almighty.

[Rev. Debbie Ingram, Pastor, United Church of Hinesburg, Executive Director of Vermont Interfaith Action; United Church of Hinesburg.]