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.