Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Homily for 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the 19th Sunday
of Ordinary Time
August 8, 2010
Heb 11: 1-2, 8-12
Willow Towers, New Rochelle

“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go” (Heb 11: 1).

A large part of the book of Genesis, the book of beginnings, is concerned with Abraham. Genesis describes—imaginatively, figuratively, thru stories that mean a great deal to us—the beginnings of the world we live in, the beginnings of the human race, the beginnings of human evil doing, the beginnings of a new, restored relationship with God, the beginnings of a special people who would bring God to the world. All those beginnings—that’s why it’s called Genesis!

That special people, of course, is the Jews; and Abraham is their father. In Genesis Abraham’s story starts at the tail end of ch. 11. (When medieval scholars divided the books of the Bible into chapters, they could’ve done a neater job of it. Shouldn’t a major character be introduced in a new chapter?) His story goes thru ch. 25. So that’s 14+ chapters—rather substantial, as the Bible goes—and fitting for the father of the Jewish people, God’s people. We heard a big chunk of 1 of those chapters, 18, on successive Sundays 2 and 3 weeks ago.

Abraham demonstrates several virtues to an outstanding degree: hospitality, as we heard in the reading 3 weeks ago, when he entertained 3 unexpected guests, including God himself; clan loyalty, which was the subtext of the reading 2 weeks ago, when he begged God not to destroy Sodom—where his nephew Lot lived; courage; obedience; above all, faith, the virtue singled out in today’s 2d reading. Note that that reading, both a Jewish and a Christian text, is addressed to a congregation of Jewish Christians. Abraham’s faith is a model, an example for all who believe in God, all who seek God, all who want to carry out God’s designs in this world. In fact, St. Paul, another Jewish Christian, writing to a mixed church of Jewish and Gentile Christians at Rome, calls Abraham the father of all who believe (Rom 4:16-18).

God asked hard things of Abraham. Hebrews today points to his journeying, to his “going out” from his homeland in Mesopotamia to a place unknown to him “that he was to receive as an inheritance”—an inheritance from God, not from his father. And he stayed there in “the Promised Land,” Palestine, moving about as a nomad in tents, as the reading says, (11:9) with his family and slaves, his flocks and herds, waiting for God’s plan to unfold.

Did any of you immigrate to the U.S. from Italy, Ireland, or some other country? If you didn’t, maybe your parents did. It took faith and courage to do that, didn’t it? And you, or they, knew where they were coming, maybe had someone to meet them, had the possibility of returning if things didn’t work out, could write letters to their families back home. America was going to be the Promised Land—the streets were paved with gold, right? Of course a lot of the immigrants at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th found out that wasn’t true; not only that, but they were the ones who were going to pave the streets in the 1st place!

But, seriously, contrast your immigrant experience, or your parents’, with what Abraham did. No letters telling him to come, come; no one waiting for him. No ship to sail on; he walked. No road map. Some hostile tribes to deal with on the way. No place to settle; just keep wandering, looking for water and forage. The only directions come from God, rather vague, we have to say.

God promised Abraham a son and countless descendants—as numerous as the stars in the sky—and you can see a lot more starts in the desert than you can around here, with all the light refracted into the sky from our buildings and highways! Descendants as numerous as the sands on the seashore (Heb 11:12). That’s a lot of grandchildren! But the promise comes to a very old couple, a sterile wife (11:11). You heard the promise repeated by Abraham’s visitors 3 Sundays ago: by this time next year Sarah will have a son (Gen 18:10). You also know how God tested Abraham’s faith with a command to sacrifice that son, stopping him at the last instant from cutting his throat on top of the altar and firewood (Gen 22:1-18), which our passage this evening doesn’t mention. So that’s a lot of faith on Abraham’s part, faith leading to an inheritance, a promised land. He would see the land, but personally he’d never own it—just walk up and down with his flocks and herds, and be buried in it.
Abraham leading Isaac out to be sacrificed according to the Lord's command (carving on the marble altar screen of Notre Dame Cathedral, Tournai, Belgium).

We prayed about an inheritance tonite, a promise we’ve received from God thru Jesus Christ. God tells us we’re his children, adopted by the Holy Spirit that Jesus has given us, a spirit of adoption St. Paul calls it (Rom 8:15). If we’re God’s daughters and sons by adoption of the Holy Spirit sent on us by Jesus, then we expect the same inheritance as Jesus—that’s our prayer tonite: “bring us to our promised inheritance,” which is eternal life, the life of resurrection.

Abraham didn’t get a free ride to the Promised Land and had to fight to protect his family and his flocks while he was there. He had constantly to listen to God, obey God, welcome God’s word.

Our reaching our promised inheritance also encounters obstacles, temptations, events that challenge our faith; finally, earthly death, with its fears and its questions. We need Abraham’s faith to persevere, to believe that Jesus’ Spirit is with us, that our sins have been conquered, that God will be true to his word and save us from eternal death; will in fact give us a fantastic new life in a wonderful place even better than Abraham’s Promised Land—what the author of Hebrews calls “the city with foundations, whose architect and maker is God” (11:10), where God himself dwells, where Jesus has ascended before us, where all the saints are waiting for us.

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