Scripture: Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 & Luke 12:32-40
“[T]hey are seeking a homeland.”
Hearing that sentence, I cannot but help to think about the asylum seekers that made their way from Congo and Angola, through Latin America, across our southern border, to the Portland Expo, and then even, this week, to Lewiston. The writer of Hebrews situates their theology in the long Biblical tradition of migration, comparing our spiritual experience to the Old Testament patriarchs, virtually none of whom had a “homeland.”
In the US, and in Maine in particular, we rather than praise those who “seek” a “homeland,” we tend to trust only those who can claim America and Maine as a homeland for generations. Mike Tipping, a colleague of mine, recently wrote a piece for Beacon about Tom Kawczynski, the leader of the so-called “Maine for Mainers” organization. The Bangor-based conservative radio station, WVOM, put Kawczynski on the air, because they wanted to allow him to explain himself, after he was fired from his position as the Jackman town manager for being an avowed white supremacist. Mike’s point in the article was that no media outlet—conservative or otherwise—should give airtime to a guy who literally puts Hitler on his Christmas cards, and openly calls for the creation of a white ethnostate. It allows that kind of thinking to become normalized. And yet unfortunately, when a “real Mainer” has to have family living in the state for generations, Kawczynski’s thinking is just the most extreme version of an all-too common prejudice. Rather than honor those who seek a homeland, we tend to make it harder for them to work and live and raise their families.
For those of us who come from immigrant families, we know, however, that even without facing prejudice, people miss home no matter what. The writer of Hebrews goes on to comment that “If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return.” It’s fairly easy to understand what this means in the context of physical immigration from one place to another, harder to decipher the meaning for our spiritual lives. Why would God give us the opportunity to return, if our calling is to be migrants?
With respect to geographic immigration, I can understand this more easily. I am reminded of a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a woman from Somalia and a man from Djibouti, both of whom were talking about what it was like to raise children in the US. A lot of it sounded familiar, how one generation struggles to pass on the knowledge and values of the other old world to the new; how the second generation struggles to form an identity that can encompass both worlds. Except that now, with the miracles of modern transportation and signs of stability returning to East Africa, it really is a possibility for the first and second generation to go back. The woman I was talking to had originally wanted to send her daughter to stay with family in Africa to help her understand where she had come from, and how lucky she was to be in American. In some ways, it backfired. Her relatives in Africa took such good care of her, so excited to have an American in their midst, that she wanted to stay. Having grown up as a young, black, Muslim woman in America during the time of Trump, she felt respected, comfortable in public, aware of who she was, in a way that she simply had not experienced before in America. She wanted to return.
At the same time, it probably isn’t quite so simple to return. My Grandma told us stories about her trip back to Hong Kong after living in the states for a while. She had been excited to go, but when she got there, she just didn’t fit in any more. As Thomas Wolfe wrote, there are ways in which “you can’t go home again.” The act of leaving changes us. Our old homeland can only be our homeland if we are a certain way. Leaving, growing, facing adventures alters who we are, such that our homeland cannot be our homeland again even if we wanted it to.
I suspect it is also the case that the Homeland changes as well. Nicola described to me her experience recently of going back to the neighborhood where she grew up, on a trip with my sister to Chicago. What had once been streets filled with working class, Eastern European immigrants and their shops and modest homes, has now been gentrified out of existence. Even if she had never left, it would have been taken right out from under her feet anyway.
So it is puzzling to me what the writer of Hebrews means when saying that “they would have had the opportunity to return,” from a spiritual perspective. It is as if they are saying we could go back to the Garden of Eden, that after eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, we could still find our way back to innocence. I get that sometimes it really does become safe to go back home, if by home we mean the physical coordinates of where we grew up. But it seems hard to believe that the experience would be that different than what my Grandma and Nicola described, unable to really recreate that feeling of a homeland, because it and we have changed so much.
Perhaps a clue to the meaning here comes when the writer of Hebrews contrasts the opportunity God gives to return to the land that we have left behind, with this: “But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” In other words, the desiring of our old homeland is the desire for something less than “a better country,” a country that is less than what we could have, a country that we would be settling for, not striving towards. This reminds me of my mom and step-father, who moved around with us quite a bit growing up, and are now trying to come Maine. My step-dad was a pastor, so he ended up living all over the northeast, living for the last twenty plus years in Pittsburgh. But Pittsburgh isn’t where they want to retire together. They want a simpler house that can accommodate physical limitations that they know are coming, and of course being closer to the grandchildren is a plus for everyone. Pittsburgh is where they’ve lived the longest, but it apparently doesn’t feel quite like home. They could settle at any moment, just stop looking, quit the hassle of moving, decide they don’t want to seek a “better country” for themselves, and just try to reconcile themselves to a life they know doesn’t fit anymore.
I think God does let us do that. You can see people who are stuck in jobs and relationships and bad habits all the time. But the thing about being stuck is that it doesn’t mean change stops, it just means that change happens while cling to a few symbolic things that give the illusion of stability. As GK Chesterton has noted, if we want to keep a fencepost white, we can’t simply leave it “the way it is.” We have to clean it and paint it every year, or else it will turn gray. In some ways, that is how Chicago and so many other cities have lost so many neighborhoods; it wasn’t that they did too much, it was that they did too little. They were too slow to take gentrification seriously, too enamored with its short-term benefits, to see the incalculable losses it entailed. Keeping what was good would have required bold action, attempting to do new things, experimenting. Same for the root causes of migration in Africa and Latin America and the Middle East that force so many people to leave their homes. To allow people to stay, to allow people to have their lives stay the same, great changes would have to be made. Being “stuck,” trying to return to home, trying to keep what we have, eventually exacts a price that costs us everything.
The one word, therefore, that describes how we should be, given the inevitability of change, is “prepared.” We must be ready. That’s where the tough admonitions of our gospel reading come. It’s another spot where Jesus advises us to sell everything we have, one of those inconvenient, dramatically anti-capitalist statements he has a habit of making. Don’t try to squeeze everything you can out of everyone around you to make another dollar. Get rid of all your stuff; forget about profit; give to those who need it more. This is less of a moral command. It’s practical advice. Getting rid things voluntarily is the only way to prepare for the day when all will be taken involuntarily. Something or someone is coming, like a thief in the night, and if we are pre-occupied with our materials possessions or the rigid plans we’ve made for our lives, we just won’t be ready. Whether it’s attachment to a certain kind of economic development, or the prejudices that lead to war, or the nostalgia for the way Lisbon street used to be before “they” moved in, our refusal to relinquish the short-term, the comfortable, the hallmarks of this lesser-than-better-country only make us unable to deal with the inevitable.
The practice of letting go creates what can be called “the ready state.” I’m borrowing that term from a doctor, physical therapist, and cross fit coach I really like named Kelly Starrett. He gets athletes into what he calls “the ready state,” where they can run a long race, lift a lot of weights, or just be physically able to pack a car with the inhuman amount of necessary to vacation with small children. He teaches mobility exercises, including the kind of yin yoga that Jane talked about a few weeks ago. Part self-massage, part-stretching, sometimes they feel great, and other times they are that kind of pain that really hurts but also feels really good at the same time. You might call it “ready state pain.” It’s all designed to help our body do the basics, like squatting, bending over, and putting our arms over our head. These are all movements that children do with perfect technique, automatically, with no instruction, but—as adults who spend too much time sitting and not enough time playing—we can only accomplish with real work and attention. We can’t go home again, just living the lives of children, effortlessly moving through play. But we can let go of bad habits, and willingly accept “ready state pain,” loosening the things that restrict and weigh us down, even that means changing the aspects of our daily life that we are most attached to—financial and otherwise.
Of course, this begs the question: what is coming? We are told that the experience of it will be sudden, like a master surprising the household at night, or even a burglar. Over the years, Christians have believed this coming meant many different things. To some, it was the end of the Roman empire. To others, it was the end of time itself. Others expected the dramatic events described in Revelation—lakes of fire and so forth—to be realized imminently and literally. In my mind, the smartest scholars emphasize that the coming of kingdom is a renewal of the world we actually live in here, an establishment of social justice, God’s kingdom coming. But probably most of us, no matter which interpretation or theory we have, do not actually live each day in a state of preparation. We get attached to our little plans and develop the expectations that they won’t get disrupted, getting grumpy or worse with others when they do. To that, the Bible could not be more clear: great change is coming; we can’t predict it; we can only prepare by letting go before things are taken away.
I’ll close with a passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, The Cost of Discipleship, which ties these ideas together. He describes a man who goes to his pastor, lamenting that he has lost the faith that he once had. The pastor says that he should just listen to the sermon more closely on Sunday. The man says that he does, that he really is trying. The pastor insists that he thinks he’s trying, but he really isn’t. The man says, no, I really am, and they go on in circles until they both leave dissatisfied. Bonhoeffer says that this is because the pastor only remembers part of the truth, that “only those who believe obey.” The pastor is stuck trying to figure out how to cultivate right action when faith isn’t there. But the reverse, paradoxically, is also true: “only those who obey believe.” Paradoxically, right action actually creates faith. If you are having a hard time believing, do something good.
So Bonhoeffer says the pastor should say the tough thing in this situation: “You are disobedient, you are trying to keep some part of your life under your own control. That is what is preventing you from listening to Christ and believing in his grace” (Cost of Discipleship, 69). Bonhoeffer explains that for this to work, we must do something so substantial, so bold, so radical, that it affects our whole existence. That is the true value of selling all one’s possessions, or migrating away from everything and everyone that you know and love. It is not faith itself. But it is the pre-requisite, the only way that we can shock ourselves away from our attachments, able to finally hear God’s calling for our lives. It is the “ready state pain.” It hurts, but it also feels good.
That word, “obedience,” doesn’t sound great to modern ears, skeptical of surrendering our judgment and rationality to an external force. But the lessons of scripture, the lessons of faith, is that, one way or another, our judgment and rationality are going to fail. They and we are imperfect. It is simply a matter of whether we will have our own perfect, neat, little, completely wrong ideas about the world forcefully taken from us while we are unprepared, or if we will willingly surrender them to face the world as it truly is. That willing surrender is called obedience because, lacking all the justifications and theories about ourselves and the world, we are left with only that which we did not create, that which urges and calls us to a better country. It usually takes some kind of dramatic act or major life event to hear it, but God’s voice is always there, ready to be heard. We just have to accept the pain that feels good in order to be ready to hear it.
Thus, beyond the basic moral reasons we should welcome the stranger, a welcoming immigration system is simply a good, practical idea. Not only do immigrants embody a kind of moral courage, a strength to willingly embrace change, that all of us should aspire to, they help us come to terms with the world. Problems like war and poverty that we might falsely think we can allude are actually inescapable. The people they displace are the first encouragement we get to take these issues, and our interdependence, seriously. We can try to keep the fence post white by not doing anything. Or we can roll up our sleeves, let go of what we otherwise might prefer to stay stuck in, and get to work making, in the words of Hebrews, “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” The gesture that the city of Portland made, housing everyone at the expo, was the kind of shocking grace, something that reflected the character of that city, something that was true obedience to principles beyond the explicable, that fits with the kind of preparation Jesus discussed, something on the order of selling one’s possessions. We have no shortage of opportunities, individually and collectively, to take similar actions. And when we don’t feel like doing it, that is exactly the best moment to do it. What are we holding on to that will make us unprepared for the future? Scripture can’t answer that for us. But it does give us fair warning that the day is coming when the question will be called. So let’s get ready. Amen.