19th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Aug. 7, 2016
Heb 11: 1-2, 8-19
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance” (Heb 11: 8).
As I prepared to move out here from New Rochelle in June, I went to AAA and asked them to prepare a trip-tik for me. I knew where I wanted to end up, and with whom, what the distance was and how many days it should take. I needed only to have the best route marked out for me.
Other people use GPS for the same purpose—probably more than use a trip-tik or even Mapquest. I tend to be a bit old-fashioned and definitely not P.C.
A century ago, 2 centuries ago, our ancestors came to this land more blindly.
|Immigrants arriving in Boston, early 20th century|
Maybe they had a relative here already who’d receive them and guide them on arrival, or maybe they’d connect with one of the many immigrant aid societies to help them find housing and employment. Or maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe they came expecting to find the streets paved with gold—and then, as has been said, learned the streets not only weren’t paved at all, but they were the ones who were going to pave them.
But the 19th- and 20th-century immigrants to America had a rough idea where they were going, and the possibility, if things didn’t go well, of returning to Ireland, Germany, or Italy—as many of them did. They came to America with great hopes for freedom and opportunity, as to a new promised land, and their children inherited a better life.
The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Abraham “sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country” (11:9), that “promised land” being the Promised Land: Canaan, which would become Israel when his descendants did finally occupy it. The letter tells us Abraham went there “not knowing where he was to go” (11:8)—quite a contrast to our ancestors’ trek across the ocean or how we move about today; it seems some people can’t go to the grocery store without GPS! Abraham moved his family, tents, and herds not only without GPS but even without a compass or a map (like an unprepared Boy Scout)—perhaps with just some oral guidance to the next watering spot or grassy meadow; and with abundant faith in God’s direction, as we read in Gen 12: “The Lord said to Abram: ‘Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.’ Abram went as the Lord directed him” (vv. 1,4).
Journey of Abraham and His Family
Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, 1664
Even when Abraham arrived in Canaan, the land pointed out to him and promised to him and his descendants, it remained just a land of promise. He had yet no children for the fulfillment of God’s promise that his descendants would inherit the land thru which he wandered for years as a nomadic herder “dwelling in tents” (11:9). He didn’t possess an inch of it until he purchased a cave in which to bury Sarah when she died (Gen 23).
What Abraham did have was faith in God. He went where God led him and did as God instructed him. And God fulfilled his promises of descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky, and possession of the land, the land we call today Israel after Abraham’s grandson.
The Letter to the Hebrews offers some additional examples of people of faith, which our reading this morning skips over. Their faith, the letter says, was in “the city with foundations, whose architect and maker is God” (11:10), a city in “a better homeland, a heavenly one” (10:16). That’s the point the author wishes to drive home to us: that in this life we are wanderers, homeless nomads, pilgrims on our way to our real home—what the hymn “O Salutaris” calls “our true native land with thee,” i.e., with God. Jesus told his apostles at the Last Supper that he was going to prepare a place for them (John 14:2-3). This is our faith, a faith pointing us, like Abraham, to a place we haven’t seen, a place we don’t know, a place to which God is leading us. Our GPS, our map, our sure guide is God’s Son, our good shepherd. Our prayer a short while ago was “that we may merit to enter the inheritance” God has promised to us (Collect)—like Abraham and his descendants. Similarly, the 3d Eucharistic Prayer prays “that we may obtain an inheritance with [God’s] elect,” his chosen ones, his saints.
In a different context, St. Paul makes a strong argument that we are descendants of Abraham—not on the basis of physical descent but on the basis of faith (Rom 4). We believe what God has promised. We are marching—or perhaps sometimes we’re trudging or shuffling—on a journey to the homeland prepared for us.
When we set out on this journey at our Baptism, most of us weren’t aware of what we were doing, or what God was doing in us.
When we’ve reaffirmed our journey—by Confirmation, by a return to the Church, by a firm commitment to Jesus Christ and to his Father—we still don’t know any more than Abraham did about the journey ahead of us. When we collect a college degree, when we start a new job, when we get married, when we become parents, when we enter religious life, when we get ordained, we don’t really know what we’re getting into. When I was ordained 38 years ago, I’d never heard of Champaign, Ill., altho it was already a stopover on my pilgrimage route; altho my ministry was already part of God’s trip-tik for you. (Pray that we all stay on the right road!)
We start out on our journeys with faith and hope. The same with our lives as disciples of Jesus: we’ve decided to walk along with him, not knowing the route by which he’ll guide us home, or what obstacles we’ll meet or whom we’ll be traveling with (besides him). The journey will get us where we want to go, however, as long as we let Jesus lead us: he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) as well as the good shepherd. Attend to him, then; listen to him, follow his directions—in the sacred Scriptures, in the sacred liturgy, in the teachings of his Church, and in your daily prayer.
God bless you!