Do you adults remember when it dawned on you that you were going to grow up? I’m not talking about those playful fantasies we had when adults would ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and we replied, “A pilot,” or “A teacher,” or “A baseball player.” I mean that awareness in your gut that one day you would no longer be a kid.
I remember when it dawned on me. I was in the sixth grade. I was lying in bed one night and it hit me that the time was coming when I would be on my own. There would be a time when I would no longer live with my parents. I would be responsible for my own decisions. I would have to provide for myself. It was scary. I wasn’t ready for all that. How would I know how to be an adult? Into those worried thoughts floated the voice of my father talking on the telephone in the next room. He was talking business. I didn’t understand what he was saying, but the sound reassured me. The next morning he would go off to work to provide for us. Mom would have breakfast on the table and make sure I got to school. It wasn’t time to grow up yet. Tomorrow I could still be a kid. My parents were still watching over me, and when it came time for me to leave home, they’d make sure I was ready. So I went to sleep.
It’s an age-old story. One generation nurtures and guides the next so it can claim its future. Each generation does its part then hands what it has done over to those who come behind. What they’ve worked for no longer belongs to them. It belongs to those who follow. God promised Israel through the prophet Joel that the day is coming when everyone will see the world differently, when old and young will see visions and prophecy and God will restore the whole creation to wholeness. It’s that vision of a world that isn’t defined by scarcity, and our expectations aren’t constricted by human limits. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, that new era has begun, and with the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we’ve received the power to live into it. The future that we pass on to our children isn’t just one more loop in a cycle of life and death that repeats itself over and over. It’s a future that changes the way we live now because Jesus has shown us what he is preparing us for, a glory beyond all comprehension that shines back on us right now.
Of course parents have the front-line responsibility for preparing children to receive the future God has prepared for them. When parents present their child for baptism, one of the questions they’re asked is, “Do you intend your child to study [Jesus], know him and be his faithful disciple?” Parents start teaching children about God from birth. One way we speak of God is as a loving parent. Eventually a child will learn that we pray “Our Father who art in heaven.” But before we learn that God is our Father, we’ve experienced the love of our fathers or those who are like fathers to us. Before we know God is like a mother, we’ve felt the love of our mothers or those who care for us like a mother. Parents are the first teachers about God. They are the first ones who prepare their children to claim the promises that God has for them in Christ.
But parents quickly learn they can’t do it alone. Once I was talking with the mother of young children at a church supper. Her family had been sporadic in their participation in the life of the church, but lately they had been showing up at church regularly. She wanted to explain to me why we were seeing more of them. “My husband and I decided it’s really important for our kids to know about God,” she said. “We have a pretty strong faith, but we realized we can’t do it on our own. We’re so grateful for this,” she said gesturing to the people who were gathered for supper. “We want them to be part of this.”
People who work with children and youth, Sunday school teachers and youth advisors, don’t always know the powerful impact they have on kids. In a church I once served I got a phone call one day from one of the elders. He was getting near retirement, and he had a trust fund he wanted to deplete. He told me he was going to give it the church, but he wanted it to remain anonymous. The gift was $40,000 a year for ten years to support the work of our Sunday school teachers. Because of his generosity our teachers received training in the summer before the new school year began. We were able to pay the expenses of youth advisors on retreats and mission trips. We bought furniture and supplies and technological equipment to enhance the learning in our Sunday school. One of the stipulations of his gift was that we also help the Sunday school of an African American church. So with the help of our executive presbyter, we approached an African American Presbyterian church in a depressed part of town and entered into a partnership. It started with our Sunday school teachers attending training retreats together. It developed into our participation in starting a Kids Café after school program at our partner church. It grew into an annual joint worship service at the zoo. The partnership expanded into shared cultural events like jazz concerts for the community. Our sessions went on retreat together. And do you know why this person chose to use his wealth in this way? Because of Sunday school teachers. When he first approached me about making that gift, he told me what an impact his Sunday school teachers had on him as a child. He called them “ministering angels.” And he was grateful for everything Sunday school teachers had done for his children and grandchildren. Here’s a perfect example of someone putting his treasure where his heart is, and God taking that treasure and multiplying it beyond what anyone expected. Two generations later we were receiving the fruit of seeds that were planted by Sunday school teachers who would never know, at least in this life, what a powerful impact they had.
But nurturing the next generation to receive what God has prepared for them isn’t something we can delegate to parents and Sunday school teachers. Children don’t stop learning when they walk out of their Sunday school classes into the church corridors. The church is the household of faith, and everyone in the house is a teacher, whether we know it or not. Everything we adults do tells children, who are more observant than we know, something about being a disciple of Christ. What you say to a child as you leave the sanctuary today, what a child observes about the way you welcome a stranger, what they overhear you saying about someone when you don’t think they’re listening – those are all lessons about what it means to belong to the family of God.
Children and youth are watching everything we adults do. They want to know if this church is a place where it’s worth investing their passions. And children and youth are passionate. They need to care deeply about something. They need to give their lives to something. Woe to us if we teach them that Christ’s church isn’t a worthy place to invest themselves. Woe to us if don’t engage their passions. We adults can get so possessive of our traditions and our proprieties and our quarrels that we lose the passion for the gospel, the thirst for embracing the world that is the reason we’re here. If our children look at us and decide this isn’t a worthy place to invest their passion, it’s like we’ve put a stumbling block in front of them. And do you know what Jesus says about those who put stumbling blocks before the little ones who believe in him? “It would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” That’s how seriously Jesus takes what we teach our children!
This congregation has made a big investment in children. Today we recognize the Eastminster Preschool. We welcome its staff and commission its new directors. We invest a lot of time and resources in the school. Whether they worship here or not, we want every family to see that something different is going on here, something that reflects the beloved community that Jesus has drawn together and gives children a look at how God intends us to live together.
But, you know, all the benefit of reaching out to children doesn’t fall to the kids or their families. The whole church benefits from investing in children and youth. We need them to teach us how to enter the kingdom of God.
A number of years ago Carol and I were co-pastors of a church in a small town in central New Jersey. There was an adult community nearby called Rossmoor. Rossmoor is one of those communities you move to when the children leave home and you’re still active. It has everything for the active senior life – a golf course, tennis courts, a clubhouse. It even has a church, a pretty little free-standing building that looks like it was imported from colonial New England, with its own pastor and governing board and mission outreach. But many of those Rossmoorites, as we called them, would drive the five miles over to Cranbury to go to church. In fact, Rossmoorites were some of our most faithful members. If you asked them why they drove all the way into town, many of them would say, “Because of the children.” They could go all week without laying their eyes on a kid, but they needed to be with the children on Sunday. They especially loved the coffee hour. I often worried about it, all those kids scurrying around old folks with canes and unsteady on their feet. But the senior citizens wanted the children there. In fact, they would put out cookies that acted like bait. The children gave them life and reminded them what they needed to be like to enter the kingdom of heaven. Those retired people knew their Bible. They knew that Jesus said, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” They needed the children. They needed them to teach them how to be humble and trusting. They needed them to show the way into the kingdom of heaven.
Isn’t it amazing how God works? Children need adults to teach them and provide for them and prepare them to receive the promises of God. Children need adults to hold them and nurture them as they grow up, to guide them to the promises God has prepared for them. Children need adults to plant the seeds that will grow into treasures they will hand on to those who follow them. Yet we adults need the children to teach us what kind of heart we need to enter the kingdom of heaven. We can’t cross over into the land God has prepared for us unless we become like them. Isn’t it wonderful how God binds us together, one generation to the next? Isn’t it amazing how we learn from one another how to grow up and claim the promises that God’s Spirit has poured out on us all?
9-8-19 — The Story That Shapes Our Lives — Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch
In the early years of his retirement my father organized decades of family photos into a dozen loose leaf binders. After he and my mother died, I loaded those binders into my car and brought them back to Pennsylvania. For six months, I used my spare time to digitize them so they would be accessible to all the members of the family. The binders were piled up in a corner of my study. After I finished with one binder, I’d move it from the “to do” stack to the “finished” stack. About six weeks into the project I had a surprise as I opened the next binder in line to be digitized. Instead of a collection of photographs, when I opened this one I saw a page in bold print that said, “A Memoir for My Heirs by Rufus Gilbert Lytch.” I turned the page and discovered that instead of pictures, it was a collection of type written pages, arranged under headings like “Childhood,” “War Years,” “Marriage and Family,” and “My Career.” There are over 260 pages of memories and stories and reflections. Some of them I’d heard many times around the dinner table. Some answered lingering questions like, “Why did we make that move when I was six years old?” Some filled in things that couldn’t be spoken. I had heard his war stories, but these memoirs filled in some of the parts he had left out, some of the horrors that led, in Dad’s last years, to his diagnosis of PTSD. Some stories were completely new to me, like the one about his first girlfriend. He wrote a preface saying that he recorded all those stories because he wanted his great grandchildren, who would not be born for another 20 years, to know who he was. He admitted that he left some things out. There were some episodes in his life that didn’t fit in with the story. When I finished reading his memoirs, I knew even better the man I’d known my whole life. Here was his story as he knew it, the narrative that shaped his life, that guided the way he reared my brother and me, how he cared for my mother, how he claimed his place in the world.
Every life is shaped by a story. We don’t all take the time or the energy to write it down like my father did, but we human beings make sense out of our lives by fitting them into an ongoing narrative – not just the narrative of our individual lives, but the ongoing story of the whole world. The prophet Habakkuk was struggling with what to do when the story that he had built his life on didn’t seem to make sense any more. He cries out, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!” and you will not save?” He had lived his life trusting that God was good and just and caring, yet this is what he saw: “The law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous – therefore judgment comes forth perverted.” What do you make of your life if you’ve based in on the story of a God who can be counted on to uphold what is good but all around you the bad seems to have the upper hand?
God answers that question in chapter 2. “Write the vision,” God says. “Make it plain on tablets so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and it does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” That vision is the continuation of the story of God’s dealings with God’s people. The story starts when God created human beings out of dust and entrusted us with the care of creation. The story continues when God chooses Abraham and the people of Israel to be the ones through whom God made himself know to the world. The story tells about exodus and how God delivered God’s people from slavery and defeated their oppressors. It is the story of David’s glory and the wisdom of Solomon. It is the story of God’s promise of a Messiah who would establish goodness and right and peace forever. God tells Habakkuk not to abandon that narrative. That is the story that shapes his life, a story of love and hope and peace. The competing story is a small one. That small story is what he sees all around him. It looks like wickedness and perversion and violence are the real story. If that’s the story that shapes his life, then he will live by cynicism, a “Who cares?” attitude, a goal of getting whatever he can however he can get it. That’s not God’s story. That’s not the story of the One who scattered the stars, sparks love in the human heart, and shows his power by standing for the poor and the oppressed the downtrodden. God’s story is the one that lasts. That’s the one that shapes us into the people God made us to be.
Within the larger narrative that shapes our lives, we follow lots of smaller ones. When we go to the polls to vote, we choose our leaders based in part on whether or not their opinions are shaped by the same narratives we use to shape ours. For instance, if you understand the story of illegal immigrants to be one of bad hombres who are flooding into our country to destroy our civilization, you’ll be inclined to vote one way. If you understand the story of illegal immigrants as one of hard working, enterprising people who contribute to America’s labor force, you’ll be inclined to vote another way. If you see gun control as part of the story of government trying to strip us of our rights to protect ourselves, you’ll be inclined one way. If you see gun control primarily as part of the story of trying to make America safe again, you’ll be inclined another way. If you see same sex marriage as an illustration in the story of America’s moral decline, you’ll be inclined to support certain candidates. If you see it as an example of America’s ongoing commitment to equality for all, you’ll be inclined another way.
Or think how we are shaped by our understanding of the story of our family. When a husband and a wife understand their marriage as the story of two people who share experiences and values, and which will not end until death do they part, then a marriage can endure lots of challenges. Mistakes and disappointments and fights can be incorporated as incidents in a larger story of working through hard times and emerging stronger on the other side. Marriages fall apart when spouses begin to realize that the story isn’t working, that the narrative is pointing in a different direction, that the one you loved can’t fit into the story of your life after all.
When Paul greeted the Christians in Thessalonica, he addressed them as the church “in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” He said that he boasted about them to other churches for their steadfastness and faith during all their persecutions and afflictions. The church is those whose lives are guided first and foremost by the narrative of what God is doing in Jesus Christ. Our overarching story, the story into which we fit all of our other life stories, is the story of Jesus Christ. It is the story of the one God has sent to continue the story that sustained Habakkuk, the one who shows us how to live as participants in the story of what God is doing in the world. On the cross Jesus demonstrated what perfect love is. He draws us into that love and puts to death the evil, wicked part of us that is shaped by those small, false stories that beckon us and cause us to do things we are ashamed of. Those are probably the things my father chose not to record in his memoirs. Those are not the things that define us. Our mistakes and our failures happen, but they don’t define us. Our story is the story of the one who raises us with him into eternal life and makes us part of that grand story of transforming creation in love and justice and peace.
As he ascended into heaven, Jesus said, “I am with you always.” He is not an absentee landlord who watches passively over us. In the power of the Holy Spirit, he is with us, participating in our story, taking the incidents of our lives and weaving them into his grand narrative. Becoming part of his story means that we don’t just follow rules to make sure we qualify to be snatched out of this world and escape into heaven. We know that our lives matter because we matter to God. Knowing they are part of that story leads some people to do heroic deeds. Mother Teresa lived among the poor in Calcutta. Millard Fuller gave away his fortune and started Habitat for Humanity. We can think of people, right here at Eastminster church, whose lives we’d like to emulate because they make such an impact on this world God loves. But living into the story of God’s love for creation doesn’t have to involve heroic deeds. Receiving each day with a prayer of gratitude, looking for those places that you can reveal a glimpse of Christ’s love while standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, living today as a prayer offered up to God, those are ways we can glorify God by letting our lives be shaped by God’s narrative of love and grace.
Knowing that we belong to that story allows us to complain to God, to shake our fist at God, to cry out to God like Habakkuk did, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen?” The psalmist tells us that God gathers our tears in a bottle. God takes what happens and folds it into the ongoing story of life and hope. We never know the details of the story line that lie ahead, and we are continually reinterpreting the story that has already occurred. But we know where the big story is headed. That’s why Paul closes his greeting to the Thessalonians by saying, “To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
This morning we install and commission those whom we believe God has chosen, through the voice of this congregation, to lead Eastminster as we claim our part in the story of God’s work here in East York. Those elders, deacons and trustees have accepted the call to lead us as we pray, study scripture, listen to one another, and discern what is going on around us and tell the story of what God is doing here and now. We are going to make a promise to pray for them, encourage them, respect their decisions, and follow as they guide us. Like the Thessalonians, this is a church in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We are living out his story, the one that shapes our lives.
The snow leopard is one of the rarest and most elusive of the great cats. It lives in the Himalayas, and it blends in so well with its surroundings that it is almost impossible to see. The naturalist Peter Matthiessen wrote a book about his quest to see the snow leopard in its native habitat. Rather than set out directly in search of the elusive animal, Matthiessen studied the Himalayan blue sheep, one of the snow leopard’s main sources of food. He spent 10 days trekking through the Himalayas with a biologist who was studying the migratory and mating patterns of the sheep hoping to catch a glimpse of the leopard off in the distance.
Sometimes that is how we encounter God. We come upon God while we’re intent on doing something else. That’s how Moses came across God. He was at work watching the sheep, doing the same thing he had done every day for years. Something caught his attention. He went to explore it. It was a bush, in flames but not burning up. God spoke to him from the bush, and his life was never the same.
For most of our lives, the majority of our waking hours are spent doing some kind of work, and most of us want such a large segment of our lives to have some connection with what is ultimate, what is most important to us. The Bible supports that longing. We weren’t created to keep our daily labors separate from God. When God made man and woman in God’s image, God put them to work tending the garden God had planted. We were created to find purpose and fulfillment in fruitful labor that continues God’s work of making the world a place where each person enjoys the good things God has made. One of the consequences of Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God was that the work they did became a burden for them. After God cast then out of the Garden, the earth would still bring forth fruits and vegetables and things that were good for the woman and the man, but as a punishment for their sins, it would also bring forth thorns and thistles. As God was driving them out of the garden, God said, “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread until you return to the ground…” (Genesis 3:19)
Sometimes our work can seem like a curse. Sometimes we do want to “take this job and shove it.” But there is an inherent dignity in work. Our nation celebrates Labor Day to remember the dignity of work. The holiday grew out of the labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was a response to the way that work had become dehumanizing, something that assaulted human dignity rather than enhanced it. As industry grew and became more mechanized, some employers viewed the people who worked at the looms and poured the steel and mined the ore as one more commodity to be maximized. Labor Day began as a reminder that human beings are not interchangeable parts. We were created by God to take part in God’s creative work.
That’s why unemployment is not just an economic problem. A job doesn’t just provide a paycheck that puts food on the table and a roof over the head. A job gives a person purpose, a reason to get out of bed, self-esteem. One of the great political debates of our time is how best to help those who don’t have a job. At its best, public assistance sustains an unemployed person until she or he gets through a rough patch and back on the job. But is there a line where that help becomes a disincentive and deprives a person of the initiative to find work?
At its best, work, whether we’re paid for it or not, is a gift from God that lets us have a part in the ongoing work of God’s creation. But in addition to the work of sustaining God’s creation, of building it up and being stewards of our resources, there is the work of reconciling the world to God, of freeing all people from the powers that deprive our lives of meaning and purpose, that keep us subject to those things that drain our dignity. That is the work that God called Moses to do from the burning bush. In Egypt God’s people the Israelites were slaves. To Pharaoh, they were commodities like the stones they dragged through the desert to build his pyramids. God called Moses to have a part in the work of freeing the Israelites. God was going to give them a land of their own, where they could plant vineyards whose wine they would enjoy, built homes where they could live in peace, study God’s law so they would be motivated by love and compassion rather than the whip of the overseer. The work Moses had been doing all his life prepared him for the work God gave him. His early years living in Pharaoh’s courts as the adopted son of the princess made him familiar with the ways of those in power. His later years as a shepherd, tending flocks in the wilderness, prepared him for the years he would guide the Hebrews through the wilderness.
Moses led the Israelites from bondage to freedom. Later Jesus came to free us all from the bonds that oppress us, from sin and selfishness and hatred so we can enjoy the peace and hope that God intends for us. Along with that freedom he gives us a part in the work he is doing to restore all of God’s creation. Jesus calls us each to take up our own cross, just as he took up his, and find true joy and peace in losing our lives to him.
Some, like Moses, are called to take on leadership God’s work of bringing people back to God by serving as pastors or full-time church workers. Jesus called 12 disciples away from their fishing boats to follow him, but most of the people who responded to Jesus he sent back to the places they lived and worked to tell their friends and neighbors and fellow laborers what they had seen and heard from the Lord. And that’s where most of Jesus’ work gets done, where we earn a living and take part in the life of our community.
Some people shy away from Jesus because they think that following him means they have to do more. They’re afraid it will mean going to more church meetings, giving up more family time for volunteer projects, cramming even more into an already jam-packed schedule. Or they’re afraid that they’ll have to be different people – be nicer or more outgoing or more pious. Well, following Jesus is likely to mean there are changes in your life, but it often means finding who you truly are and doing what you ordinarily do, except you do it knowing that God is somehow or other in the midst of it all.
Someone once said that his job is a way of looking responsible while he tends to more important things. You might say that’s what the Apostle Paul did. He was a tentmaker by trade, and as he travelled around the Roman Empire starting churches for Jesus, he made his living by continuing to make tents. Not only did that provide what was surely a needed product in the economies of Corinth or Ephesus or wherever he stayed, his encounters in the marketplace must have given him opportunities to glimpse God at work in the lives of those he met. More often than not, God works through us right where we are, in the midst of our day jobs. Maybe it’s by noticing an opportunity to offer a comforting word to someone in distress, or to pay attention to someone who is overlooked. Maybe our calling is to do our work with integrity, perhaps to point out an injustice or speak up with courage when we know something is wrong. Knowing that there is another level to our work lets us hold our jobs lightly. If we see a conflict between what our work requires us to do and what Jesus desires for his world, then we can walk away because we know that, in the end, we belong to Jesus, not our employer. When it comes time to retire, we can give thanks for what work has meant to us while realizing that we are a lot more to Jesus than our jobs.
Frederick Buechner is famous for saying that we find our vocation where our greatest joy meets the world’s need. For some people, that is obvious. Some people feel so certain about their calling that they embrace it and can imagine themselves doing nothing else. For others, like Moses, it’s not so clear. He didn’t doubt that God was calling him, but there were plenty of times along the way that he questioned the whole enterprise. Finding his place made his life a lot more complicated. Pharaoh resisted him. His own people, the Israelites, complained against him. There were many times in the years that followed that Moses called out to God and asked why he had been given such a thankless job that caused him so much grief.
God told him from the burning bush that he would receive a sign that would affirm his call, but the sign would be a while in coming. God told Moses that the sign would be when the Israelites worshiped God in the place where he stood. After all the confrontations with Pharaoh, the complaints of the people, the tension and the agony of the exodus, that is when he would know for sure that he had done God’s work. In the meantime, Moses would have to trust. When they were finally free, he would be certain that God was in and through it all.
Some of my best mentors in faith have been those who could reflect back on their lives and see the hand of God at work. I think of a man, I’ll call him Ted, who was in hospice care in the final stages of lung cancer. I think of the grace with which he faced his death because he could look back over his life and know that the same God who had been with him over the past 85 years, sometimes obviously and sometimes seen only in retrospect, he trusted that that same God would continue to be with him and be true to his promises even in death and beyond.
When we are baptized, we are given a
place in the work that Jesus is doing. That place may not be obvious all the
time. Sometimes we see it, and the one who calls us, only obliquely, like Peter
Matthiesen saw the snow leopard . But even if we have a hard time finding our
place, we know that Jesus has found us and has prepared a place for us,
prepared a purpose for us. Even if you aren’t sure what that is, he does. He
knows your place in his kingdom. Your place is with him.
 Belden C. Lane, “Stalking the Snow Leopard: A Reflection on Work,” The Christian Century, January 4-11, 1984, pp. 13-16.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1993), pp. 25ff.
 Lane, op. cit.
My father took pride in our genealogy. Back in the days before Ancestry.com, he had charts and family trees that traced our family all the way back to Scotland. In fact, he even claimed that we could trace our lineage all the way back to Robert the Bruce, one of the first kings of Scotland.
So when he and my mother came to visit my wife and me when we were living in Edinburgh, of course we had to visit the hallowed ground where those ancestors had come from. We had to go set foot in the castle, survey the estates, get back in touch with that illustrious heritage. Dad knew that the family had immigrated from North Knapdale Parish in the west of the country. So after Carol and I had shown them around Edinburgh, we all squeezed into a little green car that I borrowed from friends and headed across Scotland to reclaim our roots.
Now, the maps we had were vague about where North Knapdale Parish is located. We spent the night in an inn that we were pretty sure was in the general vicinity. We asked the proprietor for directions. He scratched his head, gave us a puzzled look and said, “Ach, I’ve a never heard of the place.” That evening we had supper in the pub and asked some other locals if they could direct us to our ancestral estate, and they had the same reaction.
Well, to make a long story short, we eventually found it. North Knapdale Parish was a handful of run down cottages set among a desolate landscape of rocky hills overlooking a forbidding windswept loch. There was a small stone church by the road surrounded by a cemetery. We piled out of the car and started inspecting the grave stones for familiar names. Two older ladies appeared out of one of the cottages, walked over to us and asked, “Can we be a helping ye?” My father explained that our ancestors had migrated to North Carolina from there in the early 19th century. One of the ladies looked around at the bleak, impoverished landscape and said, “I wish my ancestors had migrated to North Carolina.”
That put all our ancestral pride into perspective. Our ancestors wouldn’t have migrated if they hadn’t thought life wouldn’t be better for them in America than in Scotland. As we drove away, rather than feeling big headed about our supposed nobility, we were grateful for the courage and the conviction of those humble forebears who left behind everything they knew and set out toward a promise – not a guarantee or a contract, but a hope that they would find a better life in North Carolina than the one they knew in North Knapdale.
There’s something in the human spirit that looks forward, that strives for a better place. That’s why immigration is such a hot political topic. It wouldn’t be an issue if people in Guatemala and Honduras and around the world weren’t responding to the same hope for a new start as my Scottish ancestors.
This weekend marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to the English colonies in America. One reason slavery is called America’s original sin is because so much of the work that went into making this country great was done by people who did not come here hoping for a better life but were forced to migrate against their will, for whom America was not the land of promise and opportunity, but the place of oppression and sorrow. But even as those enslaved people were forced to build great cities like Washington, D.C., they were sustained by the same hope that sustained Abraham as he left his homeland, that promise of a city whose architect and builder is God. That promise sustained Abraham’s ancestors as they escaped from slavery in Egypt and wandered forty years in the wilderness, not knowing where they would stop for the night, but knowing that their destination was the place where their descendants would live forever. It’s the promise that gave the apostles courage in that upper room as they cowered in fear after their Lord had risen into heaven, the courage to go out into the hostile streets and proclaim that God had raised Jesus from the dead and put his claim on the world that had sent him to the cross. It’s the promise that lets Christians gather for worship each week in Pakistan when threatened by terrorists, that let Syrian Presbyterians open their churches for refugees fleeing ISIS. It’s the same promise that gave my ancestors the faith to start from scratch in a new land, trusting that even though they had to work hard and maybe see few results, there was something better in store for their children and their descendants like me.
Those who say we live in dark and troubled times are right. But what times aren’t? And the heroes of our faith are the ones who lived knowing that the threats and the hardships of the moment are not the end of the story. It was faith that kept Abraham and Sarah moving toward the land of promise. It was faith that sustained the Hebrews in the wilderness. It was faith that propelled the apostles out of that upper room and into the streets of Jerusalem. It was faith that kept enslaved Africans from falling into despair. It was faith that brought my Scottish ancestors across the sea, trusting that God would give them a new start. Theirs was not a resigned faith that if they held on long enough good times would come again by and by. It was not a faith in the great circle of life. The circle of life is fine for lions and other wild beasts. Theirs was faith that something far better was in store, faith that God is moving us forward, toward a goal, a destination that is far better than anything we have ever known. It is an assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.
But how do we have that faith? How do we live with that assurance? The letter to the Hebrews answers that question by reminding us of God’s track record. The way you get to know someone is by noticing the things they do over and over. After a while their actions give you a good idea about their character, and you begin to know what you can expect of them. Each story of the Bible tells us something about God. As we become familiar with God through the Bible, we become more adept at recognizing God when God is at work in our lives.
Hebrews reminds us that by the word of God what is seen was made from things that are not visible. The Bible begins by telling us that God took nothing and made the universe out of it. From the dust of the earth, God made human beings. God took Abraham and Sarah, when they were pushing 100 years old, and gave them a baby. God took the dead body of Jesus and breathed life into it. The character of God, which we know in the scriptures, is to take nothing and make something of it, to take those things that seem useless and make them essential, to take those who are last and make them first.
So there is something that at first seems unreasonable about committing our lives to God, about trusting that there is something better prepared for us when we entrust our lives to Christ. Trusting God requires a leap of faith. It’s like a child standing on the edge of the swimming pool, terrified to go in the water, but his mother is standing there in the water with her arms stretched out, calling his name, smiling and assuring him it’s all right. Jumping into the water goes against everything the child’s instinct and reason tell him. But he trusts his mother, so he steps off the edge, knowing she’ll catch him as she promised.
Now, one thing we know about those biblical heroes is that many of them had the opportunity to turn around and go back. If Abraham and Sarah “had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had the opportunity to return.” We all know how the past can take on a hazy glow, especially when we find ourselves in a difficult place. I remember returning to the house where I lived when I was six years old. I remembered it as an enchanting place, with large bay windows and a sprawling back yard where my friends and I could run and play hide and seek. As an adult, I went back by that place, and I was stunned by how small it is. It’s just a normal bungalow on a normal middle class street. One reason it’s good to go to a high school reunion is that, in addition to remembering momentous events, formative teachers, and dear friends, it also reminds you of lots of the memories you may have screened out over the years, the irritating people you’ve forgotten, the petty rivalries you put behind you.
Abraham, wandering all those years toward an unknown promise, could have returned back to Haran where he hadn’t had a bad life. The Hebrews could have turned around and gone back to Egypt where at least they had food and water, if not freedom. After he’d set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross, Jesus could have changed his mind and gone home to Nazareth and taken up a peaceful life as a carpenter. After Paul had been arrested a few times and whipped he could have gone back to Tarsus and resumed his trade as a tentmaker. But they all had faith in something better, the promise of God’s heavenly kingdom that waited for them.
That’s what sustains us when we want to give up and get discouraged with the world around us, when life seems too much to bear, when our plate is just too full of challenges and sorrows. The same God we know in the Bible, the God who sustained our ancestors in the faith, is holding us and carrying us forward.
That’s what’s gotten Eastminster Church where you are today. Back in 1957 when Eastminster was chartered, a group of faithful people heard God calling them to start a new community of faith in the growing suburbs of East York. That vision thrived, and the congregation grew to over 1000 members. Things have changed since then. The community is different. Our culture is different. The call to ministry in 2019 is different from what it was in 1957. Like Abraham, your sight isn’t set on what used to be. You’re grateful for your past. You learn from it and build on it. But you know you can’t go back. The future is not behind you, but ahead.
We’d all like to know what Eastminster Church will be like five years from now, but that future is not in our hands. It’s in God’s hands. Yes, we have to make plans, set goals, measure achievements, but we do that knowing that as we do, God has a say in it as well. We know that all we have received from God in the past has prepared us for God’s future, not to relive the past. We do our part, and we trust that God will do God’s part. That’s what it is to live by faith, the confidence that God has prepared a place for us, and what we do now is practice for the time we arrive. The community that gathers at 311 Haines Rd. is a milestone on that journey, pointing to the place God has prepared for us and inviting others along. That is the promise of faith that draws us forward.