An Episcopalian friend of mine used to like to say that having a prescribed Lectionary (instead of being free to choose the Sunday scripture readings yourself) is its own kind of blessing because it lets God’s word set the theme. However that may be, I remember my very first Sunday preaching here at Immaculate Conception, six years ago this week, and how, if I had been free to choose a scripture reading myself, I probably couldn’t have done much better than the one assigned – namely today’s 2nd reading from the letter to the Hebrews [Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19], interpreting the ancient story of Abraham, whom the Roman Canon calls, fittingly, “our father in faith.”
According to the account in Genesis, Abraham - at the astonishing age of 75 (when most of us are ready to stop or at least slow down) – was commanded by God to move from his ancestral home to a new land which God promised would belong (eventually) to his descendants. Of course, my move (when I moved here six years ago) was nowhere near so dramatic. I got on a plane at Newark airport and two hours later landed in Knoxville. I did, however, have many boxes of books and other personal possessions shipped ahead of me – more probably than I really needed to take. Often when we preach about such things we emphasize how possessions way one down and get in the way. Abraham, on the other hand, we are told traveled with his wife, his nephew Lot, and their herds of animals and whatever other possessions he (and they) had accumulated in those 75 years. The New Testament author of the Letter to the Hebrews rightly wanted to emphasize Abraham’s faith. And surely Abraham’s faith was the most important thing he brought with him to the Promised Land, but I think that those other people and things that he brought along mattered to him too.
Jesus famously told his disciples to travel light. Detachment from other people and from possessions is important – and at times absolutely necessary. And that is why we usually put the emphasis there when we talk about relationships and possessions. Still, as Aristotle insisted, a life without friendships would be hard to bear. And Jesus himself valued his friendships, as did his disciples in the early Church. As for things, they can be pretty attractive too – in harmful ways to be sure, but also in ways that are not altogether bad. All those gadgets we accumulate may weigh us down with possessions and possessiveness, but they can also make our lives easier and more fulfilling in some fundamental ways which help us become better people. As for all those iphones and computers that make our social interactions seem so artificial, the fact is that they also make some social interactions possible that wouldn’t even happen otherwise. And one of the important lessons these six years of parish ministry have impressed upon me is that the mission of the church depends for its success on the mission of the parish, and that the mission of the parish presumes caring about people and nourishing human relationships as well as caring for things, like maintaining buildings and raising funds. Mission and maintenance are not opposed. They go together, and each requires the other.
So I think Abraham basically got it right when he realized - probably instinctively without thinking much about it - that living productively in this world and maintaining fulfilling human relationships are important values in themselves and will always require paying significant attention to other people and things. But what made Abraham’s human relationships and possessions so especially meaningful and gave them a whole new dimension was the confident faith that freed him always to respond trustingly to God’s commands, no matter what else may have been on his mind. So it must be for all of us, as we navigate our way through the ordinary demands of daily life and the extraordinary challenges of this troubled time in which we live. A faith like Abraham’s invites us to recognize in the challenges we encounter new opportunities to respond to, new opportunities to rediscover the heart of who and what we are fundamentally meant to become by means of our relationships with other people and things – and so become the people we hope to be when we settle down once and for all forever in God’s kingdom.
Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, Agust 7, 2016.