A Better Country


Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 14C – August 7, 2016


The title for this sermon is A Better Country. I take it from the letter to the Hebrews. The author of this New Testament epistle, referring to Abraham and other faithful ancestors, wrote

They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16But as it is, they desire a better country. . . .[1]

My thesis is that the past – nostalgia for a time gone by – is a trap that closes us off to new hope and new possibility.

Abraham left his homeland to follow the call of God. Although he travelled through the land of milk and honey, he never possessed it. And although he experienced much hardship, he never looked back—never wanting to return to the land of his youth. The same was true for Moses who led his people toward the Promised Land—but never reached it himself. Some may have longed for a return to the fleshpots of Egypt, but not Moses.

This eleventh chapter of Hebrews begins with the affirmation that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”[2] So faith has a strong element of the future in it—not a return to an older country nor to a former time. Faith is about “things hope for and not yet seen.”

I think of this often when folk suggest that they want to go back to an older version of The Book of Common Prayer, and to a time when the altar faced the wall and the people stared at the priest’s back. They want to go back to a time when the Sunday School was packed and the church was filled with worshippers.

The columnist Ross Douthat makes a living insisting that his own Roman Catholic Church began to lose it’s way with the reforms of Vatican II—reforms like using contemporary languages rather than Latin. His solution? Go back to the way things were: to eating fish on Fridays, private confession, and holy days of obligation. If Roman Catholics don’t go back to the old ways, says Douthat, then they might as well go all the way to the apostate Episcopal Church with our women priests and acceptance of gay marriage.

Most cultures and religions have foundation stories and myths that shape our understanding of who we are and what we’re about. One of those stories for Jews and Christians is the creation myth in the Book of Genesis.

Something that you will not learn from biblical literalists – nor from a visit to the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky – is that the creation stories are cultural myths that point to truth but are not history—nor will you be told that there are two stories of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis.

I will be happy to talk about the two creation stories and their mythological nature with any one who would like to do that. But for this morning I want to think about them as foundation stories that help us to reflect upon who we are as human beings.

In much of orthodox Christian thinking we’re told that human beings were created in perfection and that we blew it. Created in the image of God, we quickly rebelled. God gave only one command in the garden of Eden and that was to not eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. You know the story. Adam and Eve broke the command and ate of the fruit. And as punishment, they were thrown out of the garden to struggle and make their way in the wider world. It’s a literal interpretation that treats the story as history

The perfect couple were created and placed in a garden of perfection. Eating of the fruit was, according to St. Augustine, the original sin. We have all inherited the sin of Adam. The goal of human striving is to be redeemed and returned to our original perfection in the perfect garden, which we call heaven.

Isn’t that the foundation story that we’ve all heard?

You may be surprised to discover that the rabbis over the centuries have interpreted this story in a very different way. And since it was their story first, it deserves a hearing.

Several years ago, Rabbi Bernard Barsky lectured here at Christ Church on the creation stories, which he dubbed the Call of Adam.

The Rabbi pointed out that the Big Bang would have brought an explosion of light. Low and behold, the first thing that God created in the Genesis account was light. Although there was light in the beginning, there were no eyes to perceive that light. Eyes were far in the future and, at the time, were only a potential.

Barsky said:

The call of God is the potency of light to call for the organs of light; the potency of justice to call forth the development of conscience; the potency of love to call forth organs of compassion. The call of God is in the darkness in front of us, shaping in us the moral organs, which can hear it. The call of God is the intrusion of the out there and the not yet into the here and now. It is the encompassing that longs for incarnation. It is the tug of the future tense of what could be and what should be.

Adam represents the birth of desire and the discovery of the world. In Adam we’re not dealing with an individual man who disobeys his master but with the myth of human beginnings. In Adam (the name literally translates as mankind) we’re asking what it is in the nature of Adam that draws him toward his destiny. It is the longing, the hunger, the desire to gain knowledge of good and evil, to explore the world. It is our capacity to seek and discover and become that is the nature given by God in creation. Being thrown out of the garden is like being thrown out of the nest—sent out into the wider world to seek our destiny.

So goes an important rabbinical understanding of our foundational creation stories.

Traditional Christian theology suggests that we need to go back to our original perfection. A secular version of that is that we need to return to a time when things were good in America. One man pressed a woman about when that was. She said 1957. That would have been the era of Father Knows Best, the nuclear arms race, Jim Crow, and the highest marginal tax rate was over 90%.

Evolutionary biology suggests that we have not yet become what we will be. If perfection were to exist—it is ahead of us and not behind. We are transitional beings between what was and what will be.

So whether is it in politics or religion, seeking some idyllic past is a denial of who we are and who we’re called to become. The present can be frightful, uncertain, painful and unstable. But as people of faith—or people who would like to have faith—the way is forward – not back – yearning for a better country – as yet only a potential. Our destiny is in the future.

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

[1] Hebrews 11:13b-16a

[2] Hebrews 11:1